Wednesday, April 24, 2013
Huskers' Long enjoys unexpected climb
By Brian Bennett
LINCOLN, Neb. -- Not even in his wildest dreams did Spencer Long expect to become an All-American offensive lineman at Nebraska.
How could he have? Coming out of Elkhorn (Neb.) High School, he was a 245-pound defensive end with zero FBS scholarship offers. In fact, he and his twin brother, Jake, very nearly decided to take scholarships at Division II Nebraska-Omaha before agreeing to walk on with the Huskers.
"We were torn," Long told ESPN.com. "But then we started thinking, 'We might regret this if we don't shoot for best we can possible do.'"
It turned out to be a great decision, and not just because Nebraska-Omaha decided to drop football two years later. Long has started the past 27 games at right guard for Nebraska, earning second-team All-America recognition from the Associated Press and the Walter Camp Football Foundation last season. He was the first Huskers offensive lineman to make an All-America team since 2001. Meanwhile, Jake will likely start at tight end this season.
Jake Long was a little easier to project as a collegian, since he was an all-state tight end in high school. But Spencer hadn't played offensive line before and began his Nebraska career as a scout team defensive lineman. He remembers lining up against starting offensive linemen like Marcel Jones, Ricky Henry and Keith Williams and surprising himself by holding his own in practice.
"I figured that if I could hang with those guys, I could hang with anyone," he said.
Long caught the eye of John Garrison, who was then a GA working with the scout team. Garrison eventually got promoted to assistant offensive line coach and fought to bring Long over to that position group.
It also helped that Long put on more than 60 pounds since his arrival on campus. After not playing his first two seasons, Long broke into the lineup in 2011 and has started every game since, helping lead the way for Nebraska's powerful running game.
He has had to learn the intricacies of guard play but says that's one of his favorite things about the position.
"The details are so important," he said. "The footwork, the hand placement, the head placement -- every little thing counts to be successful. Even if you're off by a hair, a defensive lineman can get in front of you, and if you don't get that second step down, you're not going to get a push. It's a lot more complicated than people think. It's not just coming off the ball and smashing into somebody."
Long's attention to those small details has helped set him apart and made him a team leader.
"He has the respect of the guys because he's a hard working, tough guy who never misses anything," offensive coordinator Tim Beck said. "He can relate to guys who are having a tremendous amount of success, but he can also relate to the guy who had nothing and walked on. They all admire his work ethic and what he's been able to accomplish."
Nebraska has a long history of walk-on success stories, especially on the offensive line. Long saw former teammate Mike Caputo rise from a non-scholarship player to an All-Big Ten center, and his former high school teammate Kevin Thomsen walked on and contributed significantly at tight end.
That tradition gave Long confidence that walking on to Nebraska could work, but he also learned it from his father. Doug Long also walked on and played one year with the Huskers. Now, he's a neurosurgeon in Omaha. Grandfather Jim was also a doctor, and both Long twins want to go to medical school. Spencer plans on taking the MCAT this summer and start applying to med schools if his scores are high enough.
Of course, he's also got some unfinished business in football, as he'll be a senior and Outland Trophy candidate for Nebraska this fall.
"He means a lot to us," head coach Bo Pelini said. "He's really developed well and has worked his butt off to become a leader on our football team, on and off the field. I think he has a bright future beyond the University of Nebraska."
That future could very well include a career in the NFL before he trades his helmet in for a stethoscope. It's a dream that didn't seem possible just a few years ago.
"I didn't really expect any of this," Long said. "So I don't know what to expect in the future. I'm just going to keep doing my thing."