Long's road finally smooth

ATHENS, Ga. -- Asked to recap the litany of health issues he has experienced during his college career, Austin Long chuckled and replied, "How much time you got?"

From multiple back surgeries to sprains and broken bones to a staph infection that left him hospitalized for two days in 2011, the senior offensive lineman might have thought he was cursed somewhere along the line. But as he enters his fifth season on Georgia's campus, he's finally in a position that most recruiting analysts expected when he was one of the top offensive tackle prospects in the 2009 signing class -- contending for a spot on the Bulldogs' starting line.

"It's been a long road," said Long, who is lining up as the first-team right guard this spring while Chris Burnette recovers from shoulder surgery. "Starting this spring off with the ones, I'm thankful; I'm blessed to be going with the ones, and I've just got to make the most of it and every day go out there and get better and just keep continuing to get better and not let it go to my head."

Although he's a fifth-year senior, it's not necessarily guaranteed that this will be Long's final season in Athens.

Because he did not play at all in 2009 or 2010 following the back surgeries, he has a solid case to present to the NCAA for a sixth season of eligibility. He said Tuesday that Georgia's coaches presented him with that possibility early in his career, although he prefers to wait until after the 2013 season to decide whether it's an option he wants to pursue.

"I haven't really thought about it, honestly," Long said. "As soon as this past season was over, Chris had surgery and John [Theus] was out, and that's all I've been thinking about was getting myself better ready for next year. I think once next season is over we'll definitely talk about it."

For now, he's a starter, and he wants to make sure he remains among offensive line coach Will Friend's top options.

Long shifted to guard from left tackle last August -- a transition that was at first uncomfortable, since he had never played the position at any level. He played in every game until the Capital One Bowl, which he missed with a fractured hand suffered in bowl practice, but it wasn't until late in the season that he began to feel like a guard.

"Coach Friend changed up my stance a little about midway through the season, about two weeks before the Auburn game," Long said. "I think once I played in the Auburn game, I played a pretty good bit in the Auburn game, and I got in there and started moving around good.

"I think the way he changed it, I can move quicker, and that's been a big plus for me is getting off the ball quicker, and knowing what to do, too. I just think that really made me feel like a guard, which is weird because before that, this past year, I'd never played guard before."

The 6-foot-5 Long said it took time to adjust to playing with a center and tackle on either side of him, as opposed to playing at the end of the line at tackle. He appears to have settled in, however, because Friend and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo both regularly drop Long's name as a candidate for an expanded role this season.

Long's teammates have noticed the strides he has made, as well.

"Austin really came on strong toward the end of last season. It's unfortunate he broke his hand during bowl practice, so he couldn't finish the season, but he's come back and hasn't missed a beat," center David Andrews said. "He's doing real good stuff right now, and he's competing. It makes me feel a little self-conscious when a 6-6 guy's in there playing guard instead of Dallas [Lee] and Burnette there, but Austin's been doing real good and really competing, and I expect big things from him this fall."

Long's first real taste of SEC competition came just last season, though, so he recognizes that he's still like a youngster despite his age. But after missing out on so many opportunities because of health issues, he does not want to let this one slip away.

He said he has worked hard to improve his quickness and plans to keep improving his strength this offseason so he can "make a move for some serious playing time."

"I got to play a little bit last year, so I'm used to it and still learning from guys like Dallas, [Andrews] -- everybody who's been playing a lot," Long said. "I've still got a lot to learn, but I'm still working hard every day."