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Healthy again, Miami's Spence eager for Clemson

Miami linebacker Sean Spence's first two seasons with the Hurricanes were probably best remembered by two plays.

One of them was throwing then-Florida quarterback Tim Tebow to the ground with ease, a highlight from Spence's freshman season that got replayed around Miami for months.

The other play is one Spence can't forget, no matter how hard he tries.

It came in the Clemson-Miami game a year ago, when — playing with a sprained knee, essentially on one leg — Spence had to try to cover Tigers speedster C.J. Spiller on a pass play.

Spiller ran away from Spence like he was standing still for an easy touchdown, and Clemson went on to dash the Hurricanes' Atlantic Coast Conference title hopes with a 40-37 overtime win.

That play has bothered Spence for 11 months.

This weekend, when No. 16 Miami (2-1) opens ACC play at Clemson (2-1), he'll have a long-awaited chance to make amends.

"He's special," Miami linebackers coach Micheal Barrow said. "Not only is he Peyton Manning-smart, but he also has the instincts to match, which is very rare for a guy to be both super-smart and instinctive. Most guys are either-or. Not him. He has the ability, he's a fast learner. We've just expected big things from him."

Spence tried to deliver those big things in last October's Clemson-Miami game.

He got hurt during Miami's first defensive series, and although he was considerably slowed, Spence insisted he could fight through the pain. He was the right outside linebacker on the Spiller play, when Clemson showed play-action and sent their star running back toward the left sideline.

When Clemson's Kyle Parker threw the ball, Spence and Spiller were both at the Miami 45-yard line. By the time, Spiller caught it, he was six yards ahead of Spence. By the time he reached the end zone, he was 12 yards clear of the hobbled linebacker.

"I was hurt," Spence said. "I was just trying to do whatever I could to help my team win. But I ended up, in the end, hurting them. The first drive, I kind of tweaked my knee. I tried to fight through it, but I couldn't."

That led to another memorable Spence moment. When Miami's defense was heading back onto the field, Spence tried dragging himself out there to join the huddle.

Someone had to drag him — literally — back to the Miami sideline. He got grabbed by the jersey, just below the base of his helmet, before grudgingly acknowledging the obvious: He simply couldn't keep going that night.

"I wanted to be out there," Spence said. "That's about it."

Healthy again, Spence said he came into this season looking for a breakthrough, and so far, he's delivering. Spence is ranked sixth nationally, averaging 2.0 tackles for loss per game so far, and he leads Miami not just in that category but also pass breakups (two), solo tackles (15) and total tackles (24).

He might just be the biggest part of a Miami defense that's been stingy in the season's early going.

"They're pretty much what you see on TV," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "They're fast and athletic. And they're No. 1 in the nation in tackles for loss and No. 2 in sacks. And they've played Ohio State and Pitt. They played some pretty good people. And they've got great stats to back it up: No. 1 total defense in our conference. We've got a ton of respect for them."

The same can be said from the Miami perspective.

Spiller is gone, the talented player now is with the NFL's Buffalo Bills. But Miami coach Randy Shannon is quick to point out that Spiller's departure didn't mean Clemson's offense crumbled in his wake.

"It's going to be a tough game for us, a big game that we have to play at a level that we've never played before," Shannon said.

Spence has waited nearly a year for that chance.

On Saturday, he says he'll be up to the challenge. It's Clemson's homecoming game, and Miami would like nothing more than to ruin the occasion.

"I'm looking forward to this," Spence said.