*In the weeks leading up to the 2008 NFL Draft (April 26-27), BR.com will offer a look into the top prospects by position. This week, defensive linemen take the spotlight, with Virginia's Chris Long coming next. *
With the Miami Dolphins making offensive tackle Jake Long the NFL Draft's No. 1 pick Tuesday, the St. Louis Rams could ignite a Long family party at the second slot.
Many draft experts are projecting St. Louis to grab Chris Long, the gifted defensive end from Virginia who is actually of no relation to Jake. The football in Chris' blood comes directly from his father, former Oakland Raider and Hall of Fame defensive end Howie.
But through an exceptional collegiate career, Chris Long has done enough to solidify himself within this weekend's top five selections - and certainly enough to step out from his father's shadow.
After playing in only six contests as a freshman in 2004, Long moved to the first-string the following season and went on to start 37 consecutive games for the Cavaliers. Given a chance to showcase his talents, he posted 182 tackles, 20 sacks and 36 stops behind the line of scrimmage in his final three campaigns.
Even though Long had a target on his jersey entering his senior season, the 23-year-old ripped off 14 sacks, third-most in the nation, and was 14th nationally with 19 tackles for loss. He was rewarded with ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors.
Now, days before NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell calls him to the podium, Long is happy to just hear "Chris" and not "Howie's son."
"I've matured to the point that now I am comfortable sharing that spotlight," said the younger Long.
It's not that family dinners have ever been a burden, however. Chris cites instances such as post-game film sessions with his father and living room workouts to focus on pass rush techniques as beneficial homework.
"My dad taught me to work hard and to be the same guy every day," Long said. "If that's going 100 mph and working hard, then that's what I'll do."
Growing up in a privileged household in the Virginia suburbs, Long could have a different road to the field than most. Instead, he won over skeptics with an endless motor and nasty demeanor.
A common sight on Saturdays was an intense No. 91 walking onto the field with black polish streaked thick down his cheeks, but not so thick that it concealed the fire in his eyes.
The humble Long doesn't see his determination as anything special.
"I don't think of myself as doing anything extraordinary with my effort," he explained. "I think that's just the way football is supposed to be played, at a high speed. I'm not a guy who does things half-speed. It's been pretty natural for me to go that fast."
In a league that greatly values a fearsome pass rush, Long would be a perfect fit as a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme, which he played in college. At the next level, teams may want to take advantage of Long's incredible athletic ability by lining him up at outside linebacker, or perhaps at end on a 4-3 defense.
His skills are undeniable. In high school, Long won a YMCA slam dunk competition. During February's NFL Scouting Combine, he was near the top of all defensive linemen in events such as the 40-yard dash (4.75 seconds), the 20-yard shuttle (4.21), three-cone drill (7.02), broad jump (10-4) and vertical jump (34 inches).
Despite such freakish gifts and his father's guidance, Long knows he will have a lot to learn as he carves his own path in the big leagues.
"I am going to have to work hard and I'm going to have to make some adjustments," he said. "One thing you have to do is check any expectations at the door. I don't expect to play any position or anything like that.
"I just want to be a football player."