LOS ANGELES -- Oregon offensive lineman Kyle Long may share a last name and bloodline with his father, Hall-of-Fame defensive end Howie, and his brother, current St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris. He also shares a dream of playing in the NFL, but Kyle Long has gone about things a bit differently. Howie was a four-year standout at Villanova, and Chris was selected second overall by the Rams in 2008 NFL Draft after establishing a dominant pedigree at Virginia. Kyle has taken a far more circuitous route.
Once a fireballing pitching prospect who got a full ride to Florida State because of his 96-mph fastball, Long fell from grace when academic issues that forced him to leave school, and a DUI in January, 2009 that landed him a night in jail, had him at a crisis point. He returned home to his family, sorted himself out, and enrolled at Saddleback Junior College in Mission Viejo, Ca. There, he switched from pitcher to defensive line, and the young man who was deemed too big to play Pop Warner football grew into a force as a 6-foot-7, 300-pound pass rusher. Eventually, Oregon came calling, and head coach Chip Kelly saw Long as an offensive lineman. He used his final year of college eligibility to play well at two new positions -- left guard and left tackle -- in one of the most complicated offenses possible.
With a new life, a new grasp on the game, and a chance to impress at next week's Senior Bowl in Mobile Ala., the younger Long is training at Travelle Gaines' gym in West Hollywood under the supervision of Gaines and former offensive line coach Tony Wise, who ran the lines for Jimmy Johnson at Miami and with the Dallas Cowboys, and most recently did the same for Dave Wannstedt at Pitt.
Now, the question is, how will a one-year Division I O-line prospect fare in the draft evaluation process? At 311 pounds, Long looks to take the scouting combine by storm, but as Wise told me, mastering the line -- especially at the next level -- is technique and leverage, not just size and speed.
"He's not a classic offensive lineman," Wise said. "Sometimes, you get offensive linemen, and that's all they've done. They've never done another sport, which is a hindrance to them. That's one of the reasons he's such a good athlete -- he's done other things. He's got very good reach, and he's got heavy hands -- we talk about the ability to deliver a blow with his hands. He's got very good explosion off the line, and he's smart enough. So, I would say it's all positive.
"The biggest thing I try to do is to get him ready for the Senior Bowl. How does practice go? How do meetings go? What's expected of you, and the drills you're going to be in. I've coached that a couple of times, so I know the routines. So, bring him into that, and then expose him to more pass protections. Now, he's going to possibly get into a more conventional offense, where he'd be in a huddle and a three-point stance -- those types of things."
Gaines, who's responsible for accentuating the physical prowess of the same kid that Howie Long once said had more pure athletic potential than anyone else in the family, said that Long's future starts with athleticism that is very rare for any lineman.
"Kyle has a rare combination of size, strength, and speed, and football's a game where they want very big men to run very fast," Gaines said. "Those guys are few and far between, and this is the kind of skill set he brings to a team. With Kyle, you have his height, weight, and 40 time. He will most likely be one of the faster linemen at the NFL combine this year. Then, you have a kid who has to be intelligent, because he played in a very complicated offense after showing up in the fall. No spring ball, no nothing. Showed up in the fall and was able to pick up and play different positions on offensive line in that fast-paced offense. He understands tilts, shades and gaps. He has a lot of football knowledge, and having one of the greatest football players ever as a father, and one of the most dominant current football players as a brother has helped out a lot. From a standpoint of ... just talking football and having resources at your disposal. He brings an athletic ability from a pedigree of very great football players."
Long agreed that getting all that football knowledge -- through osmosis as much as specific tutoring -- has been a big help in this transition.
"I come from a family that has a knowledge of this process, and it's been a real blessing," Long said. "Through the last few months, and into the next few months, I'll continue to lean on my support system. Growing up in that family, you hear about football, you see a lot of football, you play some football, and I've always kept my ears open to what [his father] has to say, and what my older brother has to say about the game. You make mental notes on things, and you slowly accumulate your own wisdom of the game -- a lot of stuff about life and preparation."
Long's DUI years ago will no doubt come up in Senior Bowl and scouting combine interviews with NFL teams, but it's important to note, especially in the wake of the bizarre Manti Te'o deception (or whatever it turns out to be), that Long owned his mistake. As Gaines put it, Long wants to use what he did wrong as a testimonial to others who may stray away from the path.
"I think that when you're looking to employ somebody, you want somebody who can work through problems. I feel like ... you hate to have to use your own situation as an example, but I went through some stuff when I was younger, and I had to find a way to deal with it. I've moved past it, and I've used it ... it was the best thing that ever happened to me. Spending that night in jail and trying to figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life -- I feel that I'm a lot stronger because of it."
The switch from Saddleback to Oregon -- and from defense to offense -- was precisely the kind of test that would have taken a lesser man out, but Long was up for it.
"You need to be open to suggestions, and you need to be critical of yourself," he said. "You need to be honest about your progression as a player, and as a student of the game. You need to make yourself available to extra coaching and critique from the guys who have been there and played. I came in, and I was the only new guy in our offensive line this last year. They all knew each other, and their strengths and weaknesses. It took a few weeks to get rolling, but guys like Ryan Clanton, who played right guard, and Hroniss Grasu, our center, right tackle Jake Fisher -- a lot of those guys worked with me. They tried to get me right, and get ready for the season. And as the season progressed, I gained a better grasp of that offense."
In the last few years, Kyle Long has gained a better grasp of just about everything. That's why, despite his relative inexperience at his ideal position of offensive tackle, some believe he could sneak into the first or second round if his pre-draft workouts go as planned. From now through April, it's not about bloodlines -- Long will have to take these upcoming challenges, and he seems impressively prepared to do so.