MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — David Long relishes the role of underdog, and he's perfect for it.
From the practice squad to the West Virginia record books, Long has led with energy and has made a living at stopping the run and being a menace to opposing quarterbacks.
His 17.5 tackles for loss through nine games this season rank as the fourth-best for a single season in school history, topping his 16.5 from last year. That 17.5 total is the best of any linebacker in the country and good enough for second overall among Division I defenders. His 39 tackles for loss in his career place him at No. 4 all-time at West Virginia. He needs just one to move into third place, six to move into second and 10 to move into a tie for first.
He has posted double-digit tackles in five games this year, including a 15-stop performance against Texas Tech. He leads the team with eight sacks. Only Kentucky's Josh Allen, who is used primarily as a pass rusher, has more among D-I linebackers.
Long has never been named the Big 12's Player of the Week, and he was left off the preseason watch list for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation's top linebacker.
Though Long is now listed among the 10 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, he rarely gets the credit he deserves, his coaches said. Long doesn't care, though. He just wants to win football games and prove people wrong.
"We're 10 games into this thing, and he does the same thing every week. You look up and he has 10-12 tackles and five tackles for loss and a sack, or two, or three, like it was last week," Dana Holgorsen said. "He makes every play, and he affects every play. I guarantee you the offense knows where he is every single play. He's a big part of it."
[caption id="attachment_720406" align="aligncenter" width="640"] David Long talks to coaches on the sideline against Baylor. — PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID PENNOCK[/caption]
An undersized outside linebacker, Long didn't garner top-notch offers out of high school, and he gave defensive coordinator Tony Gibson his commitment out of Winton Woods High School in Cincinnati after he posted 110 tackles and 16 tackles for a loss as a high school senior.
He came to West Virginia and was relegated to the practice squad.
"You don't have just a ton of guys come in and not play scout team, unless you're a transfer and we're plugging holes based on recruiting transfers," Holgorsen said back then. "Everybody has to do that."
Still, Long caught the attention of his coaches from the beginning. It even prompted Gibson to heap high praise on him after one season.
“He’ll do stuff, and I’ll say, ‘Ooh, what the hell’s he doing?’ He’s completely wrong, and yet, he’ll make the tackle. Can’t coach that,” Gibson said back in 2016. “Thank goodness for his mom and dad — wherever he got those genetics — because that kid can play football. That kid, after four years here, may break every record there is for tackling.”
Fast-forward to 2018, and Gibson's prophetic words are on their way to coming to fruition.
"He's different, he's special," Gibson said. "Everything I told you guys three years ago that I thought he would be, it's turned out that he is."
It was Oct. 1, 2016. David Long stood in the home tunnel at Milan Puskar Stadium as the speakers blared West Virginia's introduction. For the first time as a Mountaineer, Long was about to run out onto the field as a starter on the West Virginia defense.
He wasted no time getting his feet wet, either. On the fourth defensive play of the game, Long tackled Kansas State running back Justin Silmon 6-yards deep in the backfield:
[caption id="attachment_720405" align="aligncenter" width="640"] David Long makes his first tackle for loss against K-State in 2016. — MATT SUNDAY/DKPS[/caption]
Ever since, Long has been known around the nation as a dependable run-stopping linebacker who flies all over the field. Of his 219 career tackles, 149 have been solo stops. He has made 39 tackles for loss and has recorded 12.5 sacks over two and a half seasons.
"He's a good player. He works hard at it. He's smart, he has experience, he's physical, he's tough, he's really hard to block," Holgorsen said of Long, who is likely to test the NFL waters once this season is over. "His pad level in unreal, he runs underneath blocks or around blocks or through blocks or gets off blocks. He's, in my opinion, the best linebacker in the country, and people need to take notice of it. Just put the video on. I guarantee you that everybody we've played would say the same thing."
It's that ability to shed blocks, even as a 5-foot-11, 221-pound outside linebacker, that puts Long at an advantage. One teammate back in 2016 called him a "freak athlete." Gibson said he has "got a nose for the ball."
"The thing that's amazing about him, and you all see it or see it on a TV copy where you can get in and break the play down, is how he maneuvers and plays off one foot when he's jumping through a gap, or he gets skinny and doesn't give a lot of blocking surface," Gibson said. "Then, he's able to pop back out and make a play. His instincts are unbelievable."
West Virginia's coaches have talked Long up every chance they've gotten since he's stepped on campus. You'd be hard pressed to find a negative thing written or spoken about the energetic linebacker, who easily fit the bill in becoming West Virginia's emotional leader on defense.
Gibson had more of that praise to give on Tuesday.
"I haven't been around a lot of guys like him who have a nose for the ball like he has," Gibson said. "I was here with Grant Wiley. Grant was the same kind of player. Grant was a little bigger, but David, doing the things he can do, I wish I could tell you that it was me coaching but it's not, trust me. The best coaching advice I can give him is, 'Go make a play.'"
Gibson admitted that he gives Long the freedom to go against the grain at times, just as a coach would do with a quarterback who is afforded the option of calling an audible. If Long sees a weakness, he attacks it.
"He's so instinctive, and he understands our scheme, number one," Gibson said. "He understands what people are trying to do to us."
He's a talent unlike any other player that has come through West Virginia, coaches have said. Long, who typically is straight-to-the-point, tends to agree, even if he does it jokingly.
“If I find someone I’m like," Long said Tuesday, "I’ll let you know."
[caption id="attachment_720407" align="aligncenter" width="500"] David Long talks to the media after a win over Baylor. — PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID PENNOCK[/caption]
If you go through the long list of quality games that Long has put together, you'd have a heck of a highlight tape. Oklahoma State — West Virginia's opponent on Saturday — just needs to watch last year's game film.
"I guarantee they are going to know who he is," Holgorsen said. "He had, like, 18 tackles and six tackles for loss against these guys last year."
Long will need to duplicate that effort as West Virginia prepares to take on an Oklahoma State team that is playing above its 5-5 record.
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