MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — West Virginia’s coaching staff placed high expectations on David Long from the time he stepped foot onto the field. Touted as a guy who had the chance to break every record for tackles in the program’s history, Long has since had to battle through injuries while earning his stripes.
Now, though, Long is back — 100 percent healthy, he says — and he’s poised to lead this West Virginia defense through the murmurs of, “Will they be good enough?,” “Can they stop anyone?,” “How will they replace Al-Rasheed Benton as the heart and soul of the linebacking corps and the defense?”
Long doesn't care about what anyone says concerning his defense. He's just ready to shut everyone up.
“People say there’s not a lot of talent over here and stuff like that — they don’t know, they really don’t know what we’ve got over here,” he said. “They don’t know what they’re going to see throughout the season, but we know what we’re gonna do.”
When Long stepped onto the field as a freshman, defensive coordinator Tony Gibson said he knew he had something special. He gave Long a year to progress with a redshirt, and he tore things up on the scout team.
Finally given the chance to earn a job, Long came in and made his presence known from the start of the 2016 season, earning four tackles against Missouri in his first game action. He finished that season with 63 tackles, including 4.5 for loss and 2.0 sacks.
He really burst on the scene, though, in 2017.
After sitting out four games to start the season while recovering from a torn meniscus, Long came back with a vengeance. After easing into things against TCU with three tackles, he recorded games of nine and six stops against Texas Tech and Baylor.
Then, against Oklahoma State, Long was everywhere. He had 18 tackles — 7.0 for loss, the most-ever by a West Virginia defender.
He finished the season with 75 stops, 15.5 of which were for a loss and 3.5 for sacks. He also batted down six passes and recovered a fumble.
Long was named to the Big 12’s All-Conference first-team squad by ESPN and the second team by Athlon Sports. West Virginia named him its Defensive Player of the Year after he finished fourth in the league in tackles for loss and had the fourth-best TFL season of any Mountaineer in the program’s history.
But then he had offseason shoulder surgery and missed spring camp, not getting the opportunity to dive right in to building off a solid season.
“It was long. I had just sat out four games in the season, so it was hard to sit out again,” Long said of spring ball.
But he came back primed for fall camp, 100 percent and ready to go. Having dealt with the two injuries, he said, has kept him “focused” on staying on the field and playing to his fullest potential.
“That’s all I do is play football, so any chance I can get out there, I take it,” the redshirt junior linebacker said.
This fall, the attention at linebacker has sort of shifted away from Long, though. Media members are more focused on how Dylan Tonkery is progressing at Mike linebacker and how a group of young guys fit into the Sam position.
Meanwhile, the national media snubbed Long for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation’s top linebacker.
That’s fine with Long, though. He likes playing under the radar.
“I smiled a little when I saw it, but you don’t have to be on those watch lists in order to win it,” Long said. “I’m just going to go out there and play how I know I can, and then everything should fall in place.”
Long’s name, though, did appear on several preseason lists. Phil Steele named him a preseason third-team All American and the nation’s 27th-best outside linebacker while Athlon Sports put him on the league’s preseason first team. His name appeared on the Bronko Nagurski Award watch list as well as the Badnarik Award, both given out by different organizations for the best defender in the nation.
Though he smiles when asked about things like that, he plays it cool.
“I don’t feel like it makes a difference. It’s good to get some recognition from some places, but somewhere probably had me way down the line,” he said. “It really doesn't matter. I’m just gonna go out and play like I know how to play and see where that gets me.”
He will admit, however, that it’s a good confidence boost to know your hard work doesn’t go unnoticed.
“I put in a lot of work for a long time,” Long said. “Sometimes people get disrespected and don’t get put where you think they are and sometimes they get love. It comes and goes, but I’m definitely thankful for (the preseason recognition).”
One group that does notice Long’s effort and value his services is the West Virginia coaching staff. While offensive players probably wish they didn’t have to go against him in camp, the general understanding across the board is that Long makes this team better when he’s healthy.
"We didn't have him a year ago at this time. So, having him in camp has elevated our defense, in general. He was our defensive MVP last year pretty much. Having him is an awesome start,” Dana Holgorsen said. “He looks as good as he ever has. It makes a whole lot of a difference. We can't block him, and it gets frustrating to get things drawn out to where he's accounted for, and he still likes to play. That's good news for our football team.”
Long’s leadership ability will be leaned on heavily now that Benton is gone from this defense. Admittedly faster and stronger this fall, Long said it will be discipline that will take this defense to the next level.
“Believing and discipline will get us there. It was never about talent, we had talent,” he said. “We’re fixing little mistakes and getting everybody in the same direction. Nobody can mess with us.”
Some other notes from West Virginia's fall camp:
• Two injuries to note: Tight end Mike O'Laughlin (knee) and receiver Dillon Spalding (ankle) are out for the season. Both are freshmen.
You've, by now, seen the big cast on defensive lineman Darius Stills' arm. He's fine, trust me. Told by a source there's nothing to worry about, it's precautionary.
• Kicker Evan Staley and linebacker Shea Campbell both earned scholarships this offseason. Both are also West Virginia natives.
• If you hadn't heard, Australian punter Angus Davies left the program before camp started.
• When asked the other day which freshman impressed Gibson, he quickly replied, "Dante Stills." And then when he was asked what about him was impressive, he said, "Everything." Expect more on him.
• West Virginia has a new training regimen when it comes to food. Holgorsen talked about it at length to open a presser earlier in camp.
• Trevon Wesco has officially moved to fullback from tight end.
• Gary Jennings is wearing feathers in his helmet again. This time from a turkey that offensive lineman Colton McKivitz shot. No joke.
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