Long's last stand
By Jerry Ratcliffe / email@example.com | 978-7251
August 31, 2007
Chris Long could have easily been suiting up for some NFL exhibition game tonight, but instead chose to return to Virginia for his senior season.
His decision had nothing to do with money. It was all about loyalty to his teammates and a burning desire to return the Cavaliers to respectability in the ever-improving ACC.
Long’s last go-around as a Wahoo begins Saturday afternoon in Laramie, Wyo., the first of a 12-game playoff in his mind. While there have been plenty of accolades directed toward him in the offseason and the potential for All-American status and various awards named for legends such as Nagurski and Lombardi possibly in the offing, all Long really wants is to win games.
Long has already accomplished some of his most important goals, personal stuff that seemed distant, if not impossible, when he was just a lad growing up in the shadows of UVa. As a youngster at St. Anne’s-Belfield School, the son of a celebrity/Hall of Famer in Howie Long, life was different.
He heard the whispers that questioned his legitimacy as a real football player. He and his younger brothers, Kyle and Howie, couldn’t live a normal lifestyle because of the popularity of their dad, who had drawn nearly as much acclaim as a game day analyst for FOX’s NFL coverage, TV commercials and a brief fling as an action-film hero as he had for bashing quarterbacks during a glorious career with the Raiders.
“I remember people telling me that I didn’t deserve making the U.S. Army All-American team, getting a four-star rating by Rivals and things like that,” Chris Long said.
“I had people doubting me so much at times that I didn’t believe that I was even worth a scholarship.
“They’d say, ‘You go to private school and you’re Howie Long’s son - that’s the only reason you’re getting a scholarship,’” he said. “You hear that so much that sometimes you believe it.”
But it didn’t stop him from proving everyone wrong.
“It made me work hard to erase those doubts,” Long said.
Growing up a Long
That was only part of growing up in his household. Because Howie Long attracted so much attention, it became tough to go out on the town as a family. Howie didn’t want his celebrity to take away from the father-son experience.
“A lot of times it was tough because, if we wanted to go to the movies or out and eat, it was a movie and dinner at home,” Chris said.
But there were benefits, too, such as having Terry Bradshaw and Jimmy Johnson dropping by the house and picking their brains or just chilling. It wasn’t unusual for someone such as Bo Jackson to drop in to visit, as many of Howie’s old teammates would do.
Then, there was the added benefit of learning from Howie. How often does a budding defensive end get an opportunity to learn from a guy that has a bust in Canton, especially one that’s under the same roof?
Even Howie wasn’t sure about Chris’ future at UVa. He thought his son would probably end up as an offensive guard, because Chris’ size wasn’t right for linebacker and at 250 pounds, he wasn’t big enough to play defensive end.
But he did, although he is heavier now at 279, still somewhat undersized for a Division I defensive end. What he lacks in size, though, he makes up for in other areas, such as athletic ability, which accounted for 47 quarterbacks hurries the past two seasons. Perhaps if a lack of a dependable backup had not been a factor, a fresher Long would have turned many of those hurries into sacks to go along with his seven.
Virginia coach Al Groh knew right away that Long would become a defensive player, but probably never guessed that he would develop into one of the best in Cavalier history.
For those that haven’t seen Long play, Groh said this is what they will see:
“He’s got a rare competitive instinct and he thrives on it,” the coach said. “Intense competition to win is his food of life. Every play, every day in practice is a challenge to him. He tries to win every play.”
Groh, who as a coach with the New York Giants, Jets and New England Patriots, worked with some of the greatest defensive players in the game, said that Long has a natural feel, a clear understanding of a complicated game.
NFL scouts, who believed that Long would have been taken somewhere between No. 15 and No. 40 in the draft last April had he chosen to come out, said things about him like: “best motor in college football,” and “best technique in the college game.”
Fear of failure
Certainly all those things have come from incredible amounts of hard work (Howie said that no one works harder than Chris), but some of his success can be traced to something much more simplified.
“You have to fear failure and you have to fear getting embarrassed,” Chris said. “I had to fear the situation where I went to Virginia and fizzled out. You know, ‘Hey, you’re the All-American that didn’t pan out.’ That happens all the time. That was my biggest fear. I didn’t want to be a disappointment. I didn’t want to be one of those guys who disappeared.”
That has not been the case. He was thrust into action as a true freshman when Chris Canty suffered a broken leg. He battled mononucleosis before that season was through, lost weight, lost strength, but made it through.
He matured and progressed the next two seasons to the point where opponents were double-teaming him most every play. Now he’s a preseason All-American, a candidate for about every award there is, and hopes that he can become good enough that people will just refer him as Chris Long.
The reality of it is, that’s not likely.
“I always say that the day I’m known as just Chris Long probably will never come,” he said. “I’m proud of being his son. Hopefully the two names can go hand-in-hand. I’d like that.”
Comparisons began immediately. They’re both big men, with gigantic hands than engulf anyone who greets them. They played the same position.
“Clearly the genes are very evident,” said Groh, who coached against Howie in the pros. “Chris’ movements are quite similar.”
Sometimes Howie will be in Groh’s office demonstrating a technique while the two men talk football. The father-son resemblance becomes even clearer.
“Howie will get in his defensive stance, so [the similarities] aren’t just from memory or on tape,” Groh said. “You can clearly see it.”
Howie agreed that he can see some of himself in Chris, but would be the last person on the planet to take credit for his son’s success.
“Here’s a kid who literally made himself,” Howie said of Chris. “If there’s somebody that works harder, I don’t know who it is. That’s just who Chris is. He wants very badly to be good and he wants very badly not to let his teammates and his coaches down. That’s something all the great ones have.”
As much as they might be alike, they are also different. Howie was more of a rip-to-hump kind of defensive end, while Chris is a quickness, gap guy with a lot of swim moves.
“I think he might be more explosive than me in short spaces,” Howie critiqued. “I was probably more powerful from the leverage standpoint and had a better understanding of that, but that comes with time.”
They are similar in their approach to the game, first one in, last one out of the practice facility. They’re similar in motor, approach to teammates, loyalty and the like, although Howie said Chris is smarter in terms of formations, X’s and O’s.
“Virginia has done a great job over there,” Howie said. “We handed them a potentially good football player and they’ve turned him into a great football player. There’s a lot to be said about that.”
Certainly the intensity is there, something that Chris sometimes wishes wasn’t quite so present.
“I’m wound tight and so is my pops, so to be able to talk to him about what I’m not doing right and how I can do it better helps because I think he understands me better than anyone else,” Chris said. “That’s where he’s most helpful to me. He’s sort of my psychologist.”
The senior said his teammates certainly aren’t listening to his rants.
“They say, ‘Hey, you ought to internalize that. You’re crazy. Stop bothering us with this.’ But my dad always listens.”
Sometimes a call to Howie will seem endless. Chris will vent and when he ends the call, can’t help but notice it was 36 minutes.
Part of all that is the relentless desire to perfect the performance. There have been times that Chris was so disgusted with himself, he would walk off the field angry.
Playing defensive end in the 3-4 alignment is quite a challenge because of the two-gapping assignment, where he is responsible for two gaps [holes] rather than just one. Howie can relate.
“I played that scheme pretty much most of my career and it’s a bear,” Howie said. “Two-gapping as a defensive end is probably as hard a thing you can do, along with playing cornerback and quarterback. Virginia’s coaches were smart last year to adapt to the two [athletic, not bulky] defensive ends they’ve had. They both have the ability to slant and redirect.”
Chris Long grew up early last season when the team was struggling and needed a leader to emerge. He wasn’t afraid to step into that role during an embarrassing loss at East Carolina.
He played hurt early in the year, something he has become accustomed to (he went through spring practice this year with a broken hand), but wasn’t satisfied with how he had performed in a win over Duke.
“I really looked inward and had a little sitdown with myself, looked in the mirror and asked, ‘What am I doing wrong? How can I improve? I’ve got to improve because I can’t take this anymore,’” Chris said. “I wasn’t mediocre, but I just wasn’t what I wanted to be.”
He began treating practice like a game. He tried to win every play and from that point on was a beast on defense.
“Last season took a toll on us mentally, but maybe that was the best thing that could have happened to us,” he said. “Right now, heading into this season, we have a real chip on our shoulders because losing hurts. It hurts me. I want us to play angry.”
He said he took mental snapshots all of last season, when opponents celebrated on Virginia’s field, how opposing fans celebrated on the road.
“I put those mental pictures in my pocket and I’ll bring ’em out when I have to,” Chris said. “All I want to do is win.”
Groh notices that every day.
“What happens to this team is very personal to Chris,” Groh said. “That really adds a special element to a team that only unique players can bring. Somebody watching on TV may not be able to see it, but when coaches go to selecting teams, a major factor is a guy’s ability to mesh into a team environment and how to be a great teammate.
“You could characterize Chris in all of those things, but he prizes winning above everything else,” Groh said. “Winning a one-on-one drills or winning for his team. That’s all that counts to him.”
Claffey, defense set tone for Wyoming
By Jay Jenkins / firstname.lastname@example.org | 978-7250
August 31, 2007
It was purely a defensive struggle.
The proof was on the scoreboard.
That’s certainly how Wyoming linebacker Sean Claffey looks at last year’s game against Virginia.
During regulation, the Cavaliers and the Cowboys combined for 12 punts, six sacks, four field goals and three turnovers. It wasn’t until overtime that the two teams reached the end zone, which set the stage for Virginia to prevail, 13-12, on a missed extra point.
After scouting Virginia, Claffey expects more of the same on Saturday when both teams open the season at War Memorial Stadium in Laramie, Wyo., at 2 p.m.
“It’s kinda looking like it might be the same thing this year with both teams returning a lot of guys on defense,” the strongside linebacker said. “We have a great group of guys returning from last year’s team that finished in the top 10 in total defense.
“And we know Virginia has a great defense, and I think both teams showed it last year with a low-scoring game.”
Claffey, who had five tackles and a sack against UVa last year, gained further confirmation during a pair of intrasquad scrimmages that were dominated by Wyoming’s defense.
“The defense is a couple of steps ahead of the offense,” Claffey said. “In spring ball and fall camp, the offense has improved on a lot of things from the past, but the defense still had the upper hand in both scrimmages.
“But the offense showed some things that we haven’t had in the past and that is really good to see.”
The most noticeable change offensively for Wyoming is mirrored at UVa.
When Wyoming and Virginia flourished on defense last year in the head-to-head contest, the units were playing against quarterbacks that later lost their starting spots.
Wyoming quarterback Jacob Doss was replaced by redshirt freshman Karsteen Sween, who went 5-2 as a starter. Virginia’s Christian Olsen and Kevin McCabe, who played a half apiece against Wyoming last season, both eventually lost the job to redshirt freshman Jameel Sewell, who led the Cavaliers to four of their five wins.
“Each team has certainly evolved from [last year’s game], the principal way being the obvious one: neither one of the quarterbacks who are going to be in this game played in that game,” said Virginia coach Al Groh. “[Sewell and Sween] had very positive impacts on their team in the second half of the season. I’m sure each team is anticipating, that with experience and the spring and training camp, that each one of those players will be that much better.
“That will be one of the interesting storylines of the game - which player can be that much better than he was on the last day of last year. Of course, the defense that he is playing against will have something to do with that, too.”
Despite playing the opener on the road and in the stadium boasting college football’s highest elevation, Groh remains confident in his tacklers.
“Offenses can be vulnerable to weather conditions during the course of the year and some road circumstances, but defense travels a lot better than offense does,” said Groh, who is 10-23 at UVa on the road. “That’s an important thing in terms of being a good road team.”
Overlooked at 275 pounds
Cavs' nose tackle Billyk is flanked on line by two standout defensive ends
Friday, Aug 31, 2007 - 12:06 AM
By JEFF WHITE
TIMES-DISPATCH STAFF WRITER
CHARLOTTESVILLE Even at 6-4 and 275 pounds, Allen Billyk can be easy to miss on the football field.
In part that's because he toils at nose tackle, the most thankless position in the 3-4 defense that Virginia favors.
It's also because Billyk has Chris Long on one side of him, Jeffrey Fitzgerald (Hermitage) on the other. Long and Fitzgerald are two of the ACC's premier defensive ends, and it's not uncommon for them to make a sack or a tackle for loss while Billyk battles two blockers inside.
"That's just our defense," said Billyk, a graduate student from New Castle, Pa. "I'm fine with it . . . It's great playing with those guys, and I think they really feed off each other well."
As a high school senior, Billyk chose Virginia over Boston College and also had scholarship offers from Michigan and Michigan State. New Castle is about a 45-minute drive from Pittsburgh, and Billyk grew up rooting for the Steelers, whose base defense is the 3-4. That made U.Va. more attractive to Billyk, who weighed 260 pounds then and realized he'd never be a prototypical end in a 4-3 scheme.
"I knew I was going to be a bigger guy, and that this defense would fit me a lot better," he said.
After redshirting in 2003, Billyk was a reserve defensive end in '04 and '05. In the spring of '06, he was shifted inside and, to the surprise of many, won the starting job. For an end, he wasn't particularly mobile, but Billyk moves well for a nose tackle.
"It wasn't a glorious move for me," he said, "but it seems to have worked out for the best."
Billyk and his backup, sophomore Nate Collins, team with Long and Fitzgerald to give U.Va., which opens tomorrow at Wyoming, the most athletic defensive line it's had in Al Groh's seven seasons as coach at his alma mater. None of them weighs more than 280.
"I guess you could say, if we were a basketball team, we're running more of a wide-open style than walking the ball up the court," Groh said.
Billyk will proudly recall 2006 as the season he finally moved into the starting lineup. He'll also remember the obstacles he faced.
"It was weird," he said. "I had played football my whole life, and I had never even come close to spraining an ankle or anything. I was always really healthy."
That changed last August, when Billyk severely sprained an ankle.
"I had it better by the end of camp, and during the first couple of games, it was decent," he said. "And then I sprained the other ankle, and then I re-aggravated the other one. It was just back and forth all year. I had big braces on, and my movement was reduced by that."
Billyk also had to contend with a hip injury. Nonetheless, he pushed through the pain and appeared in all 12 games, starting 10 of them. He finished the season with 23 tackles, including one sack.
Now, the ankle braces are gone, and Billyk says he feels great. It shows. Groh this week singled Billyk out as the defensive player who improved most during training camp.
His job description, Billyk said, is straightforward.
"Basically, I just have to try to hold down the middle, not get pushed back," he said. "In essence, I'm almost, if you will, blocking for the linebackers. My first priority is to keep the center off [the linebackers], because if I get cut off by the center and the center gets to the linebacker, that means he's blocked two people on our defense."
Not a lot of glory in that role, but Billyk isn't complaining.
"It's better being a starting nose tackle than where I'd be if I was still playing end," he said.
Cavaliers do their best to downplay altitude factor
By AUSTIN WARD
Star-Tribune staff writer
LARAMIE -- It’s not the altitude.
The trip is just so long, and classes have only been in session for two days at Virginia, and they’d miss the same amount of lecture time even if they left Charlottesville on Friday morning.
Cavaliers coach Al Groh ticked off the reasons for packing up his team and heading to Wyoming today -- one day before teams typically hit the road -- and concerns about climbing up to 7,220 feet weren’t one of them.
The company line from Virginia -- which will practice tonight at Cheyenne Central High School -- has been, “It (the elevation) is what it is.”
But, whether Groh will admit it or not, it surely won’t hurt to have an extra day to adjust.
“We’ve researched it and got all sorts of different opinions,” Groh said. “From no real effect at all to you’ll be lucky to get out alive.
“We’ve had teams go up there to Denver and so forth and play and as a group didn’t seem to have many real effects from it, so we’re just going to go on that and kind of take it as it comes.”
While Groh has downplayed the effect publicly throughout camp, there’s no disputing the fact that the Cavaliers are entering rarified air.
Saturday’s season-opener against the Cowboys at War-Memorial Stadium -- the highest Division I-A venue in college football -- will be played more than 6,600 feet above the meeting between the two schools last season at Virginia’s Scott Stadium.
But the Cavaliers have been adamant that the most important measurement is in miles.
“I think it’s just a lot longer trip than usual,” senior Allen Billyk. “I think it’s just that we have the opportunity to get out there a day early.
“I think it’s good that we’re getting out there a day early, so we’re not really traveling the day before so we can get out there and get charged for the game.”
The Cavaliers nose tackle meant only to recover from jetlag, since Billyk said the team has fallen in line with Groh and isn’t all that worried about the elevation effect.
“No, we really don’t talk about it at all,” he said. “We’re just going about our practices and everything and getting ourselves ready to play.”
Groh said the team is about as ready as they can be after fall camp, and it’s not like the Cavaliers are going to go through conditioning drills once they get to Cheyenne.
Virginia expected to have all of its main preparation for the weekend done on Wednesday, and Groh said they’ll only “have a light workout there.”
“With the additional days to get ready for this game because there wasn’t one preceding it, we really by (Wednesday) will have done about all the work that we could do for the game,” he said. “After that, it could maybe become so repetitive to lose its edge a little bit.”
And he said again on Wednesday that the early departure wasn’t about looking for a little bit of an edge on the Cowboys this week.
“Really, we kind of feel that our interpretation of it is that it’s kind of like people going on a cruise,” Groh said. “Some people get seasick when the boat rocks and some people can go through a hurricane.
“That’s the way it is.”
And it is all business for Groh.
The extra day is certainly no vacation.
FINISHING TOUCHES: The Cowboys still aren’t quite where Wyoming coach Joe Glenn wants them.
But they’re much closer than they were on Tuesday.
“Our performance was much better than (Tuesday),” Glenn said. “We’re passing and catching and things were clicking.”
The only thing that wasn’t in perfect order was the weather.
A rainstorm that included a brief of barrage of hail chased the Cowboys indoors and delayed practice for 45 minutes, leaving UW on Jonah Field to wrap up its 2 hour, 15 minute session until after 6 p.m.
But Glenn said the work’s not done, and it might not be until right before noon on Saturday.
“We need more polish,” Glenn said. “We’re going to work right up to kickoff.
“We had a great practice (Wednesday). We’re real close.”
MAIN EVENT: The senior playmakers on both sides of the ball stole the show on Wednesday.
Cornerback Julius Stinson and wide receiver Michael Ford closed out a one-on-one passing drill with a spirited battle, with both showing off what they do best.
Stinson delivered a perfect jam at the line, nearly forcing Ford out of bounds along the left sideline, and Ford eventually broke free with a hook route towards the boundary and hauled in a dart from quarterback Karsten Sween.
BUMPS AND BRUISES: Junior linebacker Mike Juergens was in street clothes and had a walking boot on his left foot during practice.
He’s not listed in UW’s injury report this week, and the Cowboys have expected that he would be ready to return in time for the season-opener.
Contact sports reporter Austin Ward at (307) 266-0634 or email@example.com
WEDNESDAY: The Wyoming football team had its practice delayed by rain and hail, but the Cowboys got in all of their allotted 2 hours, 15 minutes of practice time at War Memorial Stadium.
TODAY: The Cowboys will practice again today, and Virginia will travel to Wyoming and work out at Cheyenne Central tonight in preparation for Saturday’s season opener. Kickoff is scheduled for noon.
CLOSING IN: Joe Glenn has had a running total of days and a wakeup left until kickoff all summer.
He’s getting low on numbers, and the UW coach said there’s still work to do: “We need more polish. We’re real close.”