PULLMAN – It was to be the last play of Thursday’s practice.
Washington State University’s No. 1 offense faced a fourth-and-5 against the Cougars’ No. 1 defense. A play had to be made.
And Travis Long made it. Again.
If there is one player who has met expectations a third of the way through WSU’s 15 spring practices, it has to be the sophomore-to-be defensive end from Spokane’s Gonzaga Prep.
“He got stronger in the offseason, obviously, so that’s helped him,” WSU coach Paul Wulff said. “He’s a smart player. He figures things out quick.
“He used his experience from last year and taken the gains he’s made physically the last four months and the combination has helped him take a little bit of a step.”
Wulff tempers the praise by citing Long’s youth and his need to mature physically, but he’s quick to point out the ceiling for the 6-foot-4, 256-pound Long is pretty high.
“He’s nowhere near where he can be,” Wulff said. “And he’s still got a lot of work in front of him. The sky’s the limit for his potential.”
To get there, Long spent much of the offseason in the weight room, lifting with a purpose – getting bigger and stronger so he could endure the rigors of the Pac-10 season.
“I looked at the things I did well last season, but I really focused on the things I could improve,” Long said. “One of those things was my size and strength.”
A starter throughout his freshman season, Long learned the stress and strain of a college football season dwarfed anything he had faced before.
“You’ve just got to take it for what it is,” he said. “It’s faster, people are stronger and bigger, but you learn to cope with it.”
He coped with it well, earning All-Pac-10 honorable mention, the only freshman defensive lineman honored by the conference coaches.
Still, in the nine months Long has been on campus, he knows he’s changed.
“I feel a lot stronger out there,” he said. “Especially my legs. I feel I can plant faster, get out faster and I get better extension because my body’s gotten a lot stronger.
“And I put on 10 pounds since last season, so that helps a lot.”
That’s just the type of player Wulff and his staff look for – a talented, athletic, high-motor guy who may have slipped through the cracks.
“When we recruited Travis, I always felt he was one of the best defensive ends on the West Coast, period,” Wulff said. “That was our evaluation, and I trust our evaluations on our players. That’s definitely a strong suit of our staff and we are going to continue to find players we think are great players, regardless of who recruits them.”
“I know if I had what I have right now, going into last year,” Long said, “I think I would have performed even better than I feel I did my freshman season.
“There is just so much experience you get from playing. You can’t get it anywhere else.”
Long showed his newly honed skills on the fourth-down play.
Off on the snap, he beat the offensive tackle to the inside and got his hands on quarterback Jeff Tuel. Play over. Practice over.