This time last year Spencer Long was learning the center position. Now he's the starter and looking to help make Washington's offensive line among the best in the NFL.
Spencer Long has rarely had a job given to him throughout his football career. When he stepped on the University of Nebraska's campus in 2009, he did it as a walk-on. Two years later he was a starter for the Cornhuskers.
After being drafted by the Washington Redskins in the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft, he appeared in just five games. Two years later, he was a starter for the Redskins.
Participating in his fourth NFL training camp, Long does so knowing he'll be the starter come Week 1, lining up at center when the Redskins host the Philadelphia Eagles.
Long's path to this point has included plenty of patience. After walking on at Nebraska, he didn't appear in a game in his first two years. In 2011, he was thrust into the starting lineup at right guard. He started the next 33 games consecutively, earning a scholarship in the process, before suffering a season-ending knee injury against Purdue midway through his senior season.
In his rookie season with the Redskins, Long played 16 offensive snaps with 11 coming in a blowout loss to Dallas in the final week of the season. His first real chance came in the 2015 season when Shawn Lauvao went down with an ankle injury early in the year. Long started the final 13 games at left guard as Washington won the NFC East.
As Lauvao recovered, the Redskins started working Long at center. Long, who graduated from Nebraska with a degree in biological science/pre-medicine, took pride learning a position he'd barely played. When his number was called in Week 3 at New York after Kory Lichtensteiger sustained an injury, Long was ready.
"I think there are definitely things I can improve on," Long said following Washington's 29-27 win over the Giants. "The main thing is I was ready to go; I was prepared."
He hasn't given up the job since. Later in the 2016 season, Redskins head coach Jay Gruden was asked about how impressive Long had been running the offense with quarterback Kirk Cousins.
"You just never know when you put a guard in there at center for the first time," Gruden said. "You worry about the snaps, you worry about the snap count, you worry about the calls. There's so many things that happen on game day that you can't emulate in practice — the speed of the game, the tempo, obviously. And he's handled it like he's a 10-year guy. I mean, he really has."
Now Long is going through his first training camp strictly as a center, which has only given him more confidence.
"It's a lot different from last year, trying to learn a new position and going from trying to play left guard too at the same time, that was a challenge," Long said. "Now that I have one position to concentrate on and a year under my belt, I mean I really just hit the ground running this year which has really helped a lot."
Long's insertion into the starting lineup with a group that includes two Pro Bowlers in Trent Williams and Brandon Scherff, along with Lauvao and Morgan Moses has put the Washington in the conversation among the NFL's best offensive lines.
Pass protection is already a plus for Washington, which allowed the fourth-fewest sacks in the NFL in 2016. Creating a consistently effective running game is the next step for the Redskins, which ranked ninth in the NFL at 4.5 yards per rush last season, but 21st in rush yards per game (106.0).
With rookie standout Rob Kelley having a full offseason under his belt plus fourth-round pick Semaje Perine and veteran Chris Thompson, Washington has put together a talented group to run behind Hogs 2.0.
"Rob hits the holes great and he's a north-south runner and it's been the same thing out of Samaje," Long said. "He's learned very quickly for a rookie and you know, CT [Chris Thompson] always does his thing on third down, he one of the best pass protective backs that we have and that I've seen and those guys are just you know, horses. They get after it so we appreciate the way they run the ball and we just try to open holes for them."
Due a variety of reasons, this group of Redskins offensive linemen has only started six games together. If this consistency continues along the line, Washington's already impressive offense could become dominant.
"It's really nice to have a group that has been able to gel over the past few seasons and in the offseason," Long said. "We know the way we work and we can count on each other. It builds a trust system with our offensive line and so far it's been great and we're just trying to keep building off of it."