COLLEGE PARK, Md. -- Craig Jefferies, a venerable high school coaching institution in Washington, DC, has ushered no shortage of elite talent to the NFL during his quarter century-plus coaching teenagers. Jefferies' list of protégés during his time at powerhouse Dunbar High School includes All-Pros Vernon Davis, Vontae Davis and Josh Cribbs, and seven other players to crack NFL rosters, among them receiver Arrelious Benn, a former second-round pick who is now with Jacksonville.
None of them, in Jefferies' estimation, compares to Maryland receiver Deon Long, who played for the coach at Dunbar from 2005-08. And he's willing to back it up and tell anyone who asks, including all 32 NFL teams, writing a letter to them detailing why he believes Long will be an impact player in the pros, regardless of where he is drafted.
Long might be a relative unknown ahead of the NFL Draft. He was part of different Division 1 programs as well as a junior college and prep school since leaving Jefferies at Dunbar. He played second fiddle to some degree to Terrapins star receiver Stefon Diggs, already established as the BMOC here upon his arrival here in 2013. But now several teams are very high on him heading into the draft.
Long just might be the kind of kid whose prowess in the NFL eclipses his collegiate accomplishments, and there were no shortage of interested parties checking him out Thursday at Maryland's Pro Day, including the New England Patriots who had three representatives here including head coach Bill Belichick and director of player personnel, Nick Caserio, who served as Diggs' quarterback for these drills.
Long has a natural belief and competitiveness that cannot be taught. He possesses more than ample size (6-0, 192), strength, speed (4.5 40-yard dash at the combine and 4.53 on his best run today despite a constant and blustery whipping wind) and toughness (he never played football until his freshman year at Dunbar, excelling at boxing since age 6). With a 1-year-old son and so many odds already overcome (he missed half of the 2013 season, his first at Maryland, to a broken leg), motivation is not an issue either and at a time when many kids would have rested on their solid combine times, Long took part in full drills despite the averse conditions and lack of a true quarterback to get the ball to him and Diggs (Diggs did position drills but did not run the 40).
Long's circuitous path through several campuses (from Washington, DC, to Chatham, Va., to Morgantown, W.Va., to Albuquerque, N.M., to Council Bluffs, Iowa, to College Park) was not entirely of his own design -- though it's an occasional knock on him among some scouts – and Long is confident the best for him is yet to come. I wouldn't bet against it, and Jefferies is adamant that will be the case. He's among the coaches determined to shine more light on Long's past as "character concerns" are occasionally brought up in the scouting community. Those are often more tied to scouts' laziness than anything the player has ever done (Long's never been in trouble of any sort). Long's transient college journey is due primarily to his loyalty to two coaches than anything else.
"While at Dunbar, Deon was the best athlete and football player that I have ever coached," Jefferies, who spent 28 years at Dunbar and is now coaching at Oxon Hill High School just outside DC, wrote in his letter to NFL teams on Long's behalf, something the player had no idea about until after the fact. "Deon has an innate ability to quickly understand and grasp football concepts and applications. He thrives when challenged.In the locker room and on the field Deon is a natural leader. His teammates respected him and his coaches saw him as their 'Play Maker.' Deon demonstrated a high level integrity and discipline, adhering to all team rules and policies."
Deon's Dunbar days
For Long, the path to this point has been anything but easy. It wasn't that long ago that football wasn't something he ever considered playing, but since then it's what consumes him. Since Jefferies found him catching balls around Dunbar his freshman year and convinced him to give football a try, Long has continued to face obstacles with Jefferies there with him for him throughout the saga and a resource for him now, still.
"I didn't see the letter he wrote, but he told me about it," Long said, "and for him to have said that about me that touched me because I probably had to work the hardest to get there. I didn't play football in a game until the last game of the season my tenth-grade year. I really had to work and get on the track and get my speed up. I boxed from six years old, so it wasn't natural to me to be a football player. I had to put that time in with him and he's actually seen that transition. Arrelious and Vontae and Vernon and all of them, they had already harnessed that. I think he said that about me because he's actually seen me go from a ninth-grader to a guy that can lead the team."
Long caught the football bug shortly after Jefferies suggested he go out for the team as a freshman. Despite having virtually no background in the sport, the coach couldn't cut him. The inherent athleticism and remarkable hands, to go with how badly the kid wanted it, led Jefferies to keep Long on the varsity team despite his youth and inexperience. The roster was loaded and the team was poised to compete for city championships again, yet Long already belonged.
"We couldn't cut him as a freshman," Jefferies said. "He wouldn't do anything to allow us to cut him. He wouldn't drop any passes. The kids tried to throw balls intentionally to make him drop passes and wouldn't drop the ball. We saw he was a tough kid who had a lot of drive and was determined. We had a lot of big-name, superstar players on our high school team, and Deon had no fear and he stood up to them competing as an incoming freshman. He wasn't overwhelmed. He withstood anything they threw at him."
Jefferies knew Long would be a difference maker, and, with him having such a limited football background, practicing with and against his players would hasten Long's development more than dominating at the JV level would have. Where once prospects like Vernon Davis had to work arduously to learn not to trap the football, or Benn had to spend hour after hour honing his routes, Long seemed to grasp every concept and fundamental the first time. They spent one session working on releases at the line and "Deon never got jammed again, ever," Jefferies said. "He had perfect footwork and he came up with all these different releases with his hands." It was as if Long was the kid who had been playing football all of his life, even when compared to the greatest prodigies Jefferies had worked with.
Of course, the presence of a hotshot freshman on the roster – and one who had never played organized football before, on top of that – put something of a target on the youngster. They would go hard on him, to test his mettle, and Long more than stood up for himself. In the summers, when NFL players like the Davis brothers would come back to Dunbar to visit or train, Long was a sponge. "If he saw guys running the 40 or whatever, he wanted to be there trying to beat them," Jefferies said. "He would try to bench or squat as much as the upperclassmen. He just put the work in."
Finally, in the last game of his sophomore season, the city championship game at that, Jefferies decided to unleash this unknown weapon (about all of 150 pounds at the time) he had been cultivating in practice. Dunbar, winners of the past four titles leading into that 2006 game, and DC champs seven of the previous eight years, ended up losing by one point, but Long made an immediate impression. Long had thought about quitting before, having to wait virtually two full seasons to finally get on the field, with Jefferies urging him to be patient. Long studied the other talent around him and when he got a chance to finally start in that championship game, he made the most of it.
"I was supposed to be the 'X-Factor' because nobody had ever really seen me play before," Long said. "And I got me a little touchdown, and ever since then football has taken over me."
Winding road from Morgantown to Albuquerque to Council Bluffs
After his junior season Long was attracting attention from some top programs, with West Virginia first to show him significant attention. He was caught up in the process, getting the red-carpet treatment at their spring game, and Long decided to commit right then and there. By his senior year, monster programs like Florida were coming hard after him, but he had already given his word, and not even Jefferies could convince him to rethink it, despite West Virginia perhaps not the ideal spot for him schematically or geographically at that point.
Long was so motivated in fact, that he graduated in January 2009 rather than the spring to try to get to Morgantown as quickly as possible. Jefferies stressed how there were other programs interested that threw the ball more and had an offense that might suit him better – "I thought he was a little bit hasty with his decision," the coach said, "he got caught up in the hype at the spring game" – but Long would have none of that. He had given his word.
Long attended prestigious Hargrave Military Academy (in Chatham, Va., not far from the North Carolina line) to help get NCAA compliant and raise his SAT score. In 2009, many considered him the top prep-school recruit in the nation. But he stuck with West Virginia and enrolled in the spring of 2010.
He never played a game there. The offense wasn't a fit, and things were not going well (coach Bill Stewart would be fired after the 2010 season), and Long had a certain reunion in mind.
As Jefferies wrote in his letter to NFL teams: "I may have contributed to Deon's decision to transfer to the University of New Mexico when I shared with him my interest in coaching there." Indeed, Long was eager to join Jefferies, who would leave Dunbar after 15 years as head coach following the 2010 season to become receivers coach at New Mexico. Jefferies had a strong bond with Mike Locksley, a former DC high school player who recruited that region throughout his coaching career and took over as the Lobos head coach in 2009. Long thought incredibly highly of both of them, and off to Albuquerque he went.
In accordance with NCAA transfer rules, Long had to sit out the 2010 football season, and in 2011 Locksley, who was clashing with school officials, was fired only four games into the season. Jefferies would, of course, soon be gone as well, and even with so much lost time already, Long wasn't going to stick around New Mexico no matter how well he was playing – and he was making eye-popping plays and despite his inexperience was the best play maker on the team. He tied for the lead with 47 catches on the struggling outfit as a freshman, had over twice as many receiving yards as anyone else (807), accounted for four of the team's seven receiving touchdowns and starred on special teams as well, including one return score.
The Lobos new staff tried to pressure Long to stay – despite them going to a wishbone offense that made no sense for such a talented and dynamic receiver – but he was bound to hit the road again.
"He tore it up that year in New Mexico," said Locksley, who was Long's coordinator at Maryland the past two seasons, "and was our number one go-to guy, but then obviously things went down with me. And people talk about where Deon's been and how he's bounced around and some want to hold that against him, but unfortunately for him at times, the kid is such a loyal kid. That's a trait that should be looked at as anything but negative. Look at his past and where he's been and its his trust and belief in me and he's seen over time the success so many Dunbar players have had wherever I've been, and his travels have pretty much been tied to my travels."
At this point it made the most sense for Long to attend a junior college and attain the necessary transferable credits required to meet the NCAA's eligibility standards for a Division I scholarship. Long chose another far-flung locale: Iowa Western Junior College in Council Bluffs.
One of the coaches on staff, Donnie Woods, was recruited to Maryland as a player by Locksley during his prior stint with the Terps. Locksley knew the offense would suit Long, and things could not have gone better. Iowa Western went 12-0, won a national championship, and posted scores such as: 77-0 (in their opener), 83-22, 81-14, 73-7, 65-0 and 54-7 in their conference championship.
Long was an All-American, rated by many as the top junior-college player in the country. He was, simply, unstoppable. He led all jucos with 100 catches, 1,626 receiving yards, 135.5 yards per game and 25 touchdowns. He caught 20 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns in his second game there and topped 200 yards twice. And this was with the team blowing out some teams to the point that the team had no reason to continue throwing the ball in the second half. He scored three receiving touchdowns six times in 12 games.
"There have been plenty of guys to go pro right from the JuCo level to the NFL," said Locksley, who landed at Maryland in 2012 and was watching Long closely. "And with the type of numbers he was putting up at Iowa Western – breaking records that were standing for quite some time – he could have definitely done the same thing. There is no question about that. He put up astronomical numbers."
Return to the DMV
By the spring of the 2013, three years had passed since Long's graduation, so he could have declared, but he was focused on his remaining eligibility and continuing to harness his ability (Long completed his requirements for an A.A. degree at Iowa Western and has earned a four-year degree from Maryland).
Finally, it was time to come back home, with College Park a few Metro stops from where Long grew up. He would get back with Locksley and back in an offense which Long already knew and could step right in. Yes, he would have to share the ball with Diggs, who was a star at Maryland by then, but Long was seeking some stability to close out his college career. Unfortunately, in October 2013 he broke his leg, after getting off to a nice start for the Terrapins (32 catches for 489 yards and 15.3 yards per catch through seven games), and would once again have to wait for another full Division I season.
"He never made me feel like less of a person or less of a talent," Long said of Diggs, "but at the same time I still had that chip on my shoulder because I know the player that I am and I really didn't have an opportunity to display that as much as I wanted to on the field. That's what I want those scouts to see now - certain things in my game that they might not have had a chance to see while I was at Maryland.
"Moving around hurt me in an aspect of establishing myself in one conference, and I'm pretty sure if I had stayed in the Mountain West (at New Mexico) I would have been an All -American and I could have racked up some records. I'd say it hurt from that standpoint but I feel like now I can adjust to any coaching style and I've been around hundreds of players and all different personalities and I feel like I can adapt to playing around anybody and being a good teammate."
While Long's 2014 senior season was hardly overwhelming statistically – 51 catches for 575 yards – catching that many balls in that offense is nothing to scoff at with Maryland hardly a prolific passing team and its quarterback play was poor (senior quarterback CJ Brown didn't waste time showing up for Pro Day, already taking a job at Amazon). The numbers don't tell the story.
While Diggs got all of the attention, "his talent doesn't have to take a backseat to Stef's," Locksley said, and the coordinator believes there were elements the Terps did not tap into (like special teams in the return game and using Long as a slot receiver) that will help propel Long at the pro level. Maryland head coach Randy Edsall said of his receivers, "They're both tremendous athletes, they both have the ability to make big plays."
"One of best things Deon's done in his career was return kicks, and he was great at New Mexico, but we already had some guys doing that here," Locksley said. "But he can return kicks, he can cover punts as a gunner, he has that ability. He can play inside and outside in the NFL, no doubt about it. He's physical enough to block the walk-away linebacker. He's fearless. He's able to catch the ball in space. He won't turn it down in traffic. He has strong hands and good leaping ability and attacks the ball at its highest point. And his biggest asset to me is his explosiveness in and out of breaks. When he sticks his foot in the ground, he can be an explosive, explosive guy."
Long helped his stock with a fine showing at the combine, but he was far from satisfied. Locksley had never clocked him higher than 4.4 – "I've been a 4.4 guy my whole life," Long said – but after two false starts Long went a little conservative and ended up 4.5. He was beyond confident that would improve at the friendly confines at College Park, but unfortunately for him the conditions were brutal with the wind relentless and coming from every direction, and he struggled with his lean getting off the line, having three false starts on each of his two attempts (one with the wind and one against it, at least in theory). The Terps didn't have an adequate indoor space to run, or the numbers likely would have been better.
Caserio, who played quarterback in college at John Carroll, was thrust into duty today, chiding himself for some bad throws – as one might expect after all these years. "That one's on me," and "my bad" were heard a few times from the makeshift quarterback, though Long had a big hug for him after the drills. "He's actually better than I thought he was going to be – he threw some tight spirals," Long quipped. Belichick spent a good portion of the day gathering information from Maryland receiver coach Keenan McCardell and chatting with Edsall for much of the workout (Belichick has a predilection for Edsall's players over the years and likes how hard he coaches them). The Patriots are in the market for a receiver and them landing one of these Maryland kids would not be a surprise, while despite the difficult conditions several scouts remarked on Long's promise and athleticism as they filed back to their cars.
Long chatted briefly with Belichick after his drills and, at the combine, he made a point of striking up a conversation with Bills coach Rex Ryan when he was with him in an elevator at Indianapolis and also chatted up Steelers coach Mike Tomlin when he ran into him. Intimidated by all of this, he is not, and he could not wait to try to best his previous marks today despite the conditions with the goalposts flailing around and blocking pads whipping into the stands.
Those who know Long continue to chafe at the insinuation there is something nefarious behind Long's varied travels ("He's a good kid who will do all the right things," Edsall said), and his former coaches just might be right about what is to come for the receiver. Maybe he will be Jefferies' next impact NFL player -- on field and off. Regardless, they hope the true message of Long's voyage – one of loyalty and perseverance – comes through as the draft draws closer, and Long prepares to pack his bags once more and see where his football odyssey takes him next.
"He's never been kicked off a team and never had anything to do with any off-field stuff," Locksley said. "There are zero character issues with Deon Long. ...
"I've had the opportunity to coach a lot of guys who have gone on to have success and talent-wise he's equal to some of those guys from the Dunbar connection, and character-wise there are no red flags other than he talks too much sometimes -- and that's a trait a lot of the great receivers have. His heart has always been in the right place, and he's always cared about people and he's a very giving, great kid. He's just a great kid. I really think the sky is the limit if he can get in the right situation."