For Travis Long, it's a bit like starting from scratch this spring. After three years working as a defensive end, Long is back to the basics, learning a new position and fine-tuning his technique. Mike Breske and the defensive assistants have a plan for Long, but first he has to add a dimension to his game.
Long will still put his hand in the ground as a defensive end, the position he's played over the past three years. But Breske plans to move him around, working Long as an end and outside linebacker. On one play, Long may line up at end in a 4-3. On the next, he may switch sides and work as an outside linebacker in a 3-4. Later, Long may work as an inside linebacker. He'll be responsible for getting after the quarterback, maintaining contain on the outside, or dropping into coverage. In other words, he's Breske's wild card.
For his part, Long was excited about the change. While there may be some rust, he said he worked as an outside linebacker in high school and knows the basics of the position well. But there's still a significant adjustment, and much of Long's spring will be devoted to learning the basics of his new position, from footwork to coverage techniques and more.
So there was Long, along with Ian Knight, Logan Mayes and Jordan Pu'u-Robinson, off to the side with Paul Volero as practice began.* They spent time working on their footwork, getting individual attention while focusing solely on technique. A good chunk of practice is devoted to the basics, from quarterbacks throwing the same routes over and over to the defense working on rush technique and footwork. It's especially important for the crop of defensive linemen turned linebackers.
*I thought Tana Pritchard was with the group as well, but will have to double-check on Tuesday. Ian Knight was working with Volero, as well.
Long looks slimmed down: a lean 250 pounds heading into spring ball. "We kind of ran a lot during winter conditioning," he said, which prepared him for the spring practices and his new role. On any given play next season, one may find Long in the backfield chasing a ballcarrier or downfield in coverage; the conditioning and technique work he's doing now will be all-important when it comes time to actually play the games.
In a way, Long is a freshman again, discovering his role along with the rest of the defense. It's a role he knows will benefit him in the long term, and one he envisions himself fitting into at the next level. With his size, athleticism and raw ability, Long is the picture of a tweener -- a hybrid defensive end that can be plugged seamlessly into the role of a 3-4 outside linebacker.
It's not often a hybrid is the pivot of the defense -- a centerpiece of the scheme -- but this year is shaping up to be all about Long. And if his play matches his talent level, it could be a special senior season for the immensely talented athlete from Spokane.
-- Best quote of the day probably goes to Jeff Choate, who met with his position group at the end of practice and could be heard yelling, "There's a new fuckin' sheriff in town, boys!"
-- As Christian noted, Jordan Pu'u-Robinson got rolled after practice -- the first such event of the spring. He wasn't alone, however. Pu'u-Robinson had Paul Volero in his ear as he alternated sprints down the field with rolls and other exercises. And the rest of the outside linebackers were along for the ride, jogging behind their teammate while listening to their coach. Did I mention this came after the defense ran sprints over and over at the end of practice? Yeah, it didn't look fun.
-- Pu'u-Robinson's punishment was probably better than the two players getting rolled in the sand pit, though.
-- Special teams was an emphasis, though things were a bit different. The typical drills were there -- punt coverage, kick catching drills and the like -- but Eric Russell also had them doing a kickoff drill. On one end of the field, the expendables, as I like to call them -- kickers, long snappers, etc. -- were simulating the role of ball carriers. Players with blocking pads were lined up every 10 yards length-wise and three-across the field, and the coverage team would weave around two, engage the third, then wrap up one of the expendables with the ball.
-- Did I mention there was a lot of running? Because there was.
-- There is no true punter on the roster, leaving the duties to a few of the specialists. Of them all, Mike Bowlin looked the most competent, and stayed after practice while working on his punting off to the side.