LINCOLN — It was shortly after Nebraska’s season opener last year when Spencer Long received a blunt challenge from his position coach.
The Husker line, in a 49-20 win over Southern Miss, helped the offense average 6.1 yards per carry and managed to maintain a clean enough pocket for Taylor Martinez to toss five touchdowns.
Yet John Garrison had a specific message for his potential-filled right guard, something that couldn’t wait for the next week’s game prep: “That’s not what an All-Big Ten player plays like.”
Long remembers it vividly. “I was like, ‘You’re right. I didn’t play well enough,’” he said.
Garrison had a few more direct critiques just like that one last season. In the meeting room. In practice. In the hallways of the football facility.
Not that Long is the kind of guy who necessarily needs any extra motivation — it was by his own commitment level and work ethic that the former walk-on transformed two years ago into the team’s best offensive lineman.
But Long isn’t going to dismiss a fiery reminder from his coach to keep pushing. He appreciates Garrison’s approach.
“He’ll be straight-up honest with me,” Long said. “He’s always going to be pretty up-front with me about what I can do better and not to be complacent. I have to give him a lot of credit for helping me.”
After earning a spot on the All-Big Ten second team in 2011, Long followed up with two All-America honors in 2012 (Associated Press and the Walter Camp Foundation). He was a unanimous first-team All-Big Ten player last year.
“I made it a little bit personal,” Garrison said. “I think he did a good job.”
But there’s still more Garrison can demand from Long, who’s started every game during the past two seasons.
On Monday, the 13th practice of the spring, the two walked off the practice field together, taking about the subtle weaknesses that are keeping Long from ascending to that next level as a player.
“He’s not a polished guy by any means,” Garrison said. “He’s got a lot of potential still, to project to be even better.”
Garrison didn’t mention any specifics. Long said only that his mistakes this spring are ones he’s made in the past, and temporarily corrected.
“They’re not necessarily total mess-ups, but those little things can screw up a play for our offense,” Long said. “You’ve got to try to strive for perfection.”
It helps, too, this spring that Long’s stepped into a new leadership role, which requires him to establish a vocal presence. It’s a bit out of his comfort zone.
But his job is to help urgently reinforce the notion that every practice rep matters.
“You can never stop getting better,” Long said. “Don’t think you’ve arrived at all. There’s always more to get.”
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