The first 10 minutes of practice were the worst. Maryland’s Deon Long, the gregarious, fast-talking transfer wide receiver clad in a yellow non-contact jersey, was forced into individual stretching while his fellow wide receivers plodded through drills. Trainers had given Long a six-week recovery period. He insisted on returning in two.
Long arrived from Iowa Western Community College armed with a five-star ranking, 100 catches at the junior college level and the expectations of playing second fiddle to Stefon Diggs, providing a hyper-athletic, downfield option to compliment Maryland’s all-ACC slot receiver. But a back injury derailed Long’s preseason progress. Doctors said he broke three bones in his lower back, the L2, L3 and L4 lumbar bones to be specific. They said recovery would take more than a month. Long wouldn’t hear it.
He returned to practice on Monday, working in a non-contact capacity until Thursday, when he returned to full contact. Saturday against Florida International, he led the Terps with nine catches for 110 yards and one touchdown.
“Felt good to get back out there, playing Division I football, showing what hard work can do,” Long said. “In my mind, I was cleared once I felt good.”
Long described his touchdown, a 25-yarder from quarterback C.J. Brown, as an “ooze-out play, a feel-your-way play.” Lined up with Diggs on the right side, Diggs stepped two yards back and broke toward the quarterback, feigning a bubble screen. Safety Justin Halley was supposed to bite, but instead an FIU cornerback released Long and a linebacker kept watch over Diggs, too.Long outran the safety easily and Brown hit him in stride.
“You wonder why no one’s been talking about Deon for a while, and that’s why,” Brown said. “He came out and had a great day today. They left him one-on-one on the boundary, and if you do that we’re going to exploit you. By the end of the game, they were crowding it, putting two guys over there.”
Once safely in the end zone, Long tossed the ball to the referee and performed his best Alfred Morris imitation, soft-tossing himself an imaginary baseball and admiring his imaginary home-run blast. He never celebrated touchdowns at Iowa Western, but heck, a new school calls for new creativity.
“Yeah I had it in my mind,” he said. “This is a new me. This is a new Deon. More excitement after the catch instead of just running out of bounds. Sort of like a Stefon-put-together sort of thing.”
Defenses will be forced to choose this season, between keying on Diggs or Long. Florida International opened trying to limit the former, holding him to just one passing target – a 10-yard one-handed grab – on the first five possessions before leaving him wide-open on a 66-yard score. Once the Panthers backed off Diggs and increased coverage on Long, Diggs finished with five catches for 98 yards and one touchdown.
“I think they had to,” Diggs said. “Deon was getting the ball, and he’s a threat out there. You can’t leave him one-on-one with one guy. You have to put another man over top of him, and it kind of opens it up for me. I love being on the same side as Deon, but when we spread the ball around, it’s hard to key on guys. We had a lot of threats on the outside. Good things are going to happen, I hope.”
Pick your poison, as they say.
“It was going to be an added weapon for us offensively,” Coach Randy Edsall said. “And now when you can get him on one side and Stefon on the other, makes you pretty dangerous. Deon’s very talented, as you can see. He runs great routes. If you get the ball anywhere near him, he’s going to catch it. He’s got the ability to go deep, great body control, good hands.
“When they started off playing, they were doing some things, allowing us to go towards Deon a little more. Then after we did, they rolled the coverage that way, which opens up some other things. Having him out there is a big advantage for us, because it allows us to do some more things, and also get him the ball. When you start running some of the option things, then you have a chance to hit some big plays with him and Deon. Deon complements Stefon very well, Stefon complements Deon very well. We’re fortunate to have both of them.”
Nigel King, Maryland’s third starting wide receiver, caught one pass from backup Caleb Rowe for 21 yards. Backup slot receiver Levern Jacobs was targeted three times – two by Rowe – and tight end Dave Stinebaugh received three targets too, though he dropped a pass from Brown.
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