- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- As Illinois' starting center for the past few seasons, Graham Pocic has mashed limbs with some of the nation's best defensive tackles.
Penn State's Devon Still, Purdue's Kawann Short, Michigan State's Jerel Worthy and Michigan's Mike Martin are among those who have lined up across from Pocic. But Pocic's toughest opponent is a man he never faces on Saturdays.
"I get to go against the best D-tackle in the conference every day [in practice]," Pocic said. "It's awesome."
Pocic is biased, but don't be surprised if his teammate, Akeem Spence, earns the same label from the NFL talent evaluators a year from now. Spence has been on the NFL radar for the past two seasons, earning a starting job as a redshirt freshman and starting all 26 games he has played at Illinois.
The 6-foot-1, 305-pound Spence built on his freshman-year numbers (45 tackles, 4 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery) by finishing fourth on the squad in tackles (69) last fall. He had 5.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery for an Illinois defense that finished seventh nationally in yards allowed and 15th in points allowed.
"His explosiveness off the ball, his strength, he's pretty athletic for his size," Pocic said. "He's just a powerful dude. If you're not ready when you go against him, he's going to get under you and make some plays in the backfield."
The Illini have had defensive linemen selected in the first round of the past two NFL drafts: tackle Corey Liuget in 2011 (No. 18 overall pick) and end Whitney Mercilus last week (No. 26 overall pick). Spence is already being mentioned as a top candidate to enter the NFL draft after his junior season this fall.
Asked last month how motivated he is to be Illinois' next elite next-level prospect, Spence's face lit up.
"I'm real motivated," he said. "I'm just working real hard, doing everything that they did, do everything right. When it's time to step up, I want to be that guy making a big sack, making a big tackle for loss, making a big turnover. That's what I'm working toward."
Spence remains in touch with Liuget, who he started alongside in 2010. Although they've had similar career arcs at the same position -- Spence actually has played more than Liuget did in his first two years -- they're different players.
"He's a lot taller than I am," Spence said.
Only two inches to be exact, but it makes a difference in the trenches.
"Corey was a little more agile and faster," Pocic said, "but Corey doesn't have the strength that Akeem has. Corey's probably a little more explosive, but Akeem's just so strong and physical inside. It's tough to deal with."
Like several other veteran defenders, Spence had concerns about the unit's direction after head coach Ron Zook's firing coordinator Vic Koenning's departure for North Carolina. He was relieved to learn the new scheme under coordinator Tim Banks closely resembles its predecessor. Illinois also retained defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, the lone holdover from the previous staff.
Spence will play mostly the 3-technique and 1-technique in Banks' scheme with some spot work out wide at the 5-technique.
"You're creating a culture of great defensive line play," Banks said. "Those kids want to uphold that standard. You talk about those guys [Liuget and Mercilus], they were just here. It's not like 10 years ago. Our guys know who they are. They say, 'If he can do it, I can do it.' There's been greatness in that room."
Spence wants to continue that legacy before he walks out the door.
3dSharon Katz, ESPN Stats & Information
4dTom VanHaaren and Erik McKinney