EVANSTON, IL- Not much has changed for the Northwestern Wildcats football program since the 2016 season. The Wildcats return much of their core from last year’s 7-6 team that won the Pinstripe Bowl, including 16 starters. They also have 20 seniors on this year’s roster. Among those seniors is Warren Long, the only player on the team who’s making a significant change.
The California native is making the switch from offense to defense for the 2017 season. Long spent his first four seasons at NU as a running back. He sustained a season-ending injury last year against Western Michigan. His career numbers are 105 carries, 517 yards and 5 touchdowns. The low numbers combined with the emergence of Justin Jackson as a potential Heisman Trophy candidate motivated Long to try his luck on the other side of the ball.
So for this year Long is taking his speed and strength over to the linebacker position. It’s a task that will be easier said than done. Long used to avoid linebackers but now his job is to take down offensive players. Instead of learning to avoid tackles, he’s now learning how to tackle. But it’s a task that he’s met head on thus far.
“It’s great, it’s a work in progress”, says head coach Pat Fitzgerald about Long’s adjustment. “He’s working his tail off and he’s an incredibly competitive guy.”
Competitive is a word that describes Long perfectly. After getting a fifth year of eligibility due to last season’s injury, Long felt that switching positions would not only better serve his team, but it would also allow him to contribute one last time.
“He’s got great pride, he’s got great velocity and temperment. (And) he’s got a high ceiling for the position,” said Fitzgerald, a former NU linebacker himself.
Of course switching positions is never easy, especially when your doing so within a short offseason. The learning curve can be a tough one to navigate, but coach Fitzgerald likes what he sees so far.
“To go from avoiding being hit to the guy that’s hitting people (is an adjustment),” Fitzgerald says. “To see the way he’s progressing right now, I’m very proud of him,” he added.
It was Justin Jackson’s success (823 carries, 3,905 yards, 27 touchdowns) in the Wildcat backfield over the last three seasons that facilitated Long’s position change. And “Coach Fitz” is more than willing to give Jackson the load on offense by saying, “Justin will go down in the Big Ten as one of the best running backs of all-time.”
Besides, with Anthony Walker Jr. now playing in the National Football League, Northwestern is looking for his replacement. And if Long can be the guy to fill that position this year, changing positions will be worth the time and effort.