By Adam Hoge-
HALAS HALL (CBS) As Kyle Long started to dominate as a left tackle at Saddleback Community College in 2011, major college coaches started to notice.
Long pulled in scholarship offers from UCLA, Oregon State, Washington and Auburn, among others. But the offensive lineman had his heart set on Oregon and when Chip Kelly offered him a scholarship, he packed his bags for Eugene.
The move completed a long, unlikely four-year journey from high school to a Division-1 college football program. By now, you’ve heard the tale of how Long went from 2008 draft pick of the Chicago White Sox to Florida State’s baseball team to rehab to eventual first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears.
But here’s a question Bears fans would like know: If Long was so athletic and so talented, why did it take him eight games to crack Oregon’s starting lineup?
“I had never been exposed to terminology,” Long explained Friday at the Bears’ practice facility. “My football IQ was a zero. I couldn’t draw up an under- or an over-front until halfway through the season. I never wanted to speak up about it because I didn’t want coach to think I was an idiot.”
Despite being well-behind the learning curve at the FBS level, Long still became part of Oregon’s left tackle rotation with Tyler Johnstone, a dominant tackle who will likely end up on an NFL field in a year or two.
Because the Ducks play at a very fast pace, they often get 90-95 snaps a game on offense and give their linemen breathers. Oregon offensive line coach Steve Greatwood committed to helping Long put together a tape for NFL teams so he received 40-45 snaps per game at left tackle. But an ankle injury cost Long any chance of leaping Johnstone on the depth chart as he had to sit out two games.
Then left guard Mana Greig suffered a season ending knee injury.
“I didn’t ask if I could start at left guard, I told them I was starting,” Long said.
The left tackle hadn’t taken any snaps at guard all season (including practice), but started at left guard Nov. 3 against USC as the Ducks posted a school record 703 yards of offense.
“It became clear to me that I needed to jump at any opportunity,” Long said.
But that opportunity wouldn’t have come if Long hadn’t put the work in to understand the terminology and increase the football IQ that was previously at zero.
“I finally applied myself,” he said. “I finally raised my hand and said hey look, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. Does someone want to teach me?’ With the help of Coach Greatwood and Tony Wise I’ve been able to increase my knowledge of the game exponentially.”
Now Long will have to do it on a whole different level — in the NFL.
It’s a jump that will concern many, considering his lack of experience, but Bears general manager Phil Emery obviously sees a talented guy who he feels like can grow mentally to earn a starting offensive line job in the NFL. When Long visited Halas Hall before the draft, he worked with offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer on the “grease board” to prove to the Bears that he can pick up the terminology.
“I’m raw. I am what I am, but I have the ability to learn,” Lond said. “I feel like I’m a pretty bright kid and I have the physical skills and tools to have success as a football player. It’s only a matter of time before it clicks and I figure it out.”
Usually, offensive linemen are drafted as tackles who can move to guard as a fall-back plan. Long is a rare exception, a guard who some believe can grow into a tackle if he puts it all together.
But that football IQ still has a ways to go.
“If you don’t know what you’re doing, then you’re not going to have success, especially at this next level,” Long said. “It’s not about, can you block the guy? It’s about who you’re blocking and how you’re going to do it. And that’s been my emphasis the last few months, trying to polish myself as a student of the game and try to make improvements not only physically but mentally.”
The Bears — and especially quarterback Jay Cutler — are counting on that happening.
Adam is the Sports Editor for CBSChicago.com and specializes in coverage of the Bears, Blackhawks, White Sox and college sports. He was born and raised in Lincoln Park and attended St. Ignatius College Prep before going off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he earned a Journalism degree. Follow him on Twitter @AdamHoge and read more of his columns here.