LINCOLN — As strongly as Spencer Long felt the pull of the NFL combine, and the urge to go there and perform at a high level, the former Nebraska offensive lineman also realized it was a race he could not win.
And one that he had best not even run.
Long has instead tried to stay on schedule with his recovery from the knee-ligament injury he suffered last October. That has called for patience with the left knee, and following the plans of NU athletic trainer Mark Mayer rather than any of his own whims.
“You want to — you want to go as fast as possible — but then again you don't want to be stupid,” Long said. “You work real hard, but you don't want to go too fast and screw something up. It's a delicate situation.”
It would be a non-issue now if not for the NFL combine invitation that Long received last month, along with former Husker teammates Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Quincy Enunwa. If not for that opportunity, Long would be OK with pointing toward being full speed by April.
Still, he will try to make the most of team interviews and maybe the bench press in Indianapolis, while more than 300 other draft hopefuls run through the gamut of physical tests that he would love to do.
“I'm a competitive guy,” Long said. “I'm going to have that itch to want to go compete, as any of those guys would. But I'm just happy to be there amongst the best NFL prospects and college football players, and happy I'm invited, and happy to go with two of my teammates, Quincy and Stanley.”
Other than the sting of missing the second half of his senior season — and then a January setback because of an emergency appendectomy — Long thinks the last few months have gone well since he was injured at Purdue on Oct. 12.
The 6-foot-4, 315-pound guard recently started full running and side-to-side movement. Some of the more intense speed and agility work will have to wait, possibly beyond the Huskers' pro day March 6.
“I can only go as far as the knee will let me,” Long said.
That brings some mystery to his draft position that will linger because of his limited activity at the combine after he reports Feb. 19.
NFLDraftScout.com ranks him as the No. 14 guard and No. 240 prospect overall. NFLDraftCountdown.com ranks him as the No. 12 guard.
Overall, there will be 15 guards among the 50 offensive linemen at the NFL combine. It's just hard to know what those numbers mean with the draft almost three months away.
“I've heard anywhere from being drafted in the higher rounds to not getting drafted at all,” Long said. “So you take those things with a grain of salt, because no one really knows.”
Long said he has heard some positive feedback in recent weeks, and that could continue if he comes back from the knee injury in good shape.
He was a second-team All-American in 2012 after being second-team All-Big Ten as a first-year starter in 2011. The former walk-on from Elkhorn then felt as if he was playing his best football last season, “really starting to click and become more wise as an offensive lineman.”
Long started 33 games as a Husker and rarely came off the field.
“I'm hoping what I've put on film will help me,” he said. “I think that probably carries the most weight anyway. And then something I couldn't control happened.”
The knee rehab gave him time to focus on upper-body work, and Long said he was pleased with his gains until Jan. 19. That's when he woke up the morning after his sister's wedding with stomach pain that intensified through the day, which several medical professionals in the family almost immediately diagnosed as appendicitis.
Long underwent surgery the following day. The standard risk of a hernia after an appendectomy shut down his lifting for a couple of weeks.
Long said he thinks he can do around 30 reps in the 225-pound bench press. The disruption to his training, however, leaves him unsure whether that can happen in Indianapolis.
“If I feel limited, I'll wait until pro day,” he said. “If I feel good, I'll probably give it a shot.”
The month of January played with Long's emotions.
A few weeks before the appendectomy, Long stood in the rain and watched his fellow NU seniors go out winners in the Gator Bowl. Mixed in between was word of his NFL combine invite and an acceptance letter from the University of Nebraska Medical Center, his first choice for med school.
“Really good news for me,” Long said. “Really awesome. I was proud and excited.”
If the NFL works out, though, Long will take a deferral and begin med school when the time is right, and then start toward his goal of becoming a physician.
It's hard to say which means more to the Academic All-American, but he knows football is the now-or-never venture of the two. And that pursuit really takes flight next week in Indianapolis, followed by NU's pro day and some potential individual workouts for NFL teams leading up to the draft.
“I hope people understand this injury isn't that serious, and hopefully I'll be even stronger before the pro stuff gets started,” Long said. “My goal is just to prove to them I'm the player they thought I was before this happened.”