David Long At Core of Linebacking Rebuild
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — David Long knows the art of the rebuild.
West Virginia’s junior linebacker rebounded from a knee injury that caused him to miss the first four games of the 2017 season and quickly reestablished himself as the preeminent force on the Mountaineer defense. In his first game back against TCU, he had only three tackles, but that step paved the wav for an eight game stretch in which he recorded 73 more stops. Fifty-four of those were solo efforts, with many displaying the slashing style that allows him to bypass potential blockers and get to the ballcarrier.
Despite missing four games, Long still led the team in tackles for loss (15.5) and was third in overall stops behind Al-Rasheed Benton and Kyzir White.
Like any competitor, it was tough for the Cincinnati, Ohio native to sit out and watch the action, but he had help along the way.
“I have a great support system, and the helped keep my head on straight and made sure I was o.k.,” he said of the process, which began after he tore cartilage during off-season conditioning workouts.
Long’s personal rebuild mirrored that of the defense, which returned only three starters from the 2016 squad. Now, a year later, the same process is in play, as WVU tries to put together a unit after being heavily hit by graduation and transfers.
“We have athletic ability and a great group of players,” Long said of the linebacking corps, which will include Dylan Tonkery (who has moved inside to the mike spot) as well as newcomers Charles Benton and Josh Chandler, along with returnees Zach Sandwisch and Adam Hensley. “We just need to take care of the little things, like knowing plays.”
Of course, “knowing plays” isn’t a little thing. Just one misstep, not to mention a blown assignment, can make the difference between a stop at the line and a big play — as was exhibited in last year’s loss to Oklahoma. On the Sooners’ first offensive snap, ten Mountaineers executed their assignments, but one did not. As a result, quarterback Kyler Murray sprinted untouched for 66 yards before being dragged down at WVU’s four-yard line.
Long knows that, and is also honest about West Virginia’s current status on the second level of the defense.
“Last year, with some of the older guys, we could play off each other,” he said, referring to the familiarity that veteran players use to make quick adjustments or cover for each other with just a nod or a look.
This year, it’s new faces, as well as returnees with little game experience other than on special teams, that have to build that rapport. With Quondarius Qualls and Brendan Ferns sidelined indefinitely due to injury, Long and Tonkery have been working to bring them up to speed.
“It’s still coming along,” said Long, who has.totaled 139 tackles in his two seasons at WVU. “We have a ways to go, but it is coming along. You have to know your assignment and try not to be superman., If everyone takes care of their job they can be o.k. We need discipline, and believing that we can get it done.”
While Tonkery, a stalwart last year, returns to man a different position, Long admits that his move also presents a challenge. Again, it’s not one that can’t be overcome, but one that doesn’t happen with the snap of the fingers.
“[Switching positions] is kind of hard, because the linebackers play off each other. But, I am not too worried about that. I know what we can do it as time goes on.”
Also in the mix are newcomers Chandler and Benton, both of whom are slated to play big roles at a minimum. At the moment, Benton appears slotted for a starting role.
“They are just learning, that’s the big thing for them,” Long said of the newcomers. “We have a few new guys and that is going to take time. I’m sure we will get it right. I’m one of the few older guys on the defense that has to get these guys together.”
That is a theme that ripples across every defensive unit — a couple of veterans must help a group of untested backups and newcomers take the next step into foundational roles on the defense. The first requirement is there, and Long believes the rest will come with time.
“It was never about talent,” he said of the problems a year ago that led to a 7-6 record. “It was just little mistakes. If we get those on the right path, nobody can mess with us. I’m pretty sure we can get that done.”