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'More knowledge, more power': Versatility sets Dominique Long apart at Michigan State

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Whenever there’s been a big play on special teams the past three seasons for Michigan State, chances are Dominique Long has been right in the middle of it.

From the moment he stepped on the field as a true freshman in 2017, the defensive back has been making tackle after tackle on punts and kickoffs, leading the Spartans in special teams tackles in each of the past two seasons.

Dominique Long

“It's all about mindset on special teams,” Long said in a recent meeting with reporters. “You just have to know what you're doing and then just attack it full speed. Obviously, it's competition-based, too, just knowing and having the confidence that the man (across from you) is not as good as you. It's just confidence-level wise, I feel like I have to be like the best man on the field, and I have to perform that way. If I had that mindset, then it would translate on the field.”

As the Long started to look toward his final season at Michigan State, he was relishing the opportunity to finally contribute defensively as well as on special teams after collecting 38 tackles, one pass breakup and a blocked punt in his career.

Bouncing back between safety and cornerback his first three seasons, Long was continually battling to crack the playing rotation behind the likes of Khari Willis, David Dowell and Xavier Henderson at safety, as well as Josiah Scott and Justin Layne at cornerback.

But with Dowell and cornerback Josh Butler lost to graduation, the window appeared to finally be opening. Long, now back at cornerback, was set to battle Shakur Brown, Julian Barnett, Kalon Gervin and others for a starting spot, and he was ready to take the same approach he’s had on special teams to the secondary.

“I'm going to just have that mindset like the man across from me is not as good as me,” Long said. “I'm just going to keep working every day.”

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Of course, that work has been derailed by COVID-19. The Big Ten announced in early August that it was postponing the football season and there has yet to be any clear indication of when the season might kick off.

In the meantime, Long is doing his best to stay dialed in on the opportunity he has to finally get that starting spot in the defensive backfield.

“This delayed season is an opportunity for me now to work on any possible weaknesses that I have,” Long said, “to get my body right and to train and to perfect my craft. So, this whole time is just going to be used to for me to perfect my craft, try getting that starting job and try to compete with all the starters across the nation.”

Dominique Long downs a punt during MSU's game against Arizona State last season.

Long’s versatility won’t hurt, either, in his quest for a starting position, not to mention his familiarity with safeties coach Mike Tressel and cornerbacks coach Harlon Barnett. Tressel was the Spartans’ defensive coordinator during Long’s first three seasons while Barnett was the defensive backs coach when Long was a freshman.

In fact, Long credits Barnett’s presence as one of the main reasons he came to Michigan State out of Westerville, Ohio.

“It’s very comfortable for me,” Long said. “The transition has been pretty smooth so far.”

But that ability to play any position in the secondary might be the most beneficial.

“I kind of feel like it was a blessing for me to switch from corner to safety all that time because now I have a really good perspective on what everybody in the defense is doing,” Long said. “When you are a safety, you have to communicate to the linebackers at certain times, how to fill in gaps and everything. So now that I've been back and forth from corner to safety, I feel like a very knowledgeable corner. You just know all the responsibilities of the defense.

“So, more knowledge, more power right? So, the more you know, the more confident you could be in playing out there. I feel like it was a blessing and now that I have all that knowledge I could just hone in on corner and just focus on my responsibilities there.”

The overload of information at two defensive positions as well as being on nearly every special teams unit is certainly not too much for Long. He’s earned Academic All-Big Ten honors in each of the past two seasons and was named to the Named to the CoSIDA Academic All-District Team in 2019.

A mechanical engineering major with a 3.61 grade-point average, Long was also nominated for the 2020 William V. Campbell Trophy, awarded each year to the player who combines academic success, football performance and exemplary leadership. It’s often referred to as the “Academic Heisman.”

“It’s a struggle from time to time managing school and football,” Long admitted. “I just have to set myself kind of a strict schedule of when I'm going to study for class, what assignments I have to do, and just try to complete those on time. And, basically that's really it. Just making sure that I get a good amount of sleep too, because my freshman year I kind of struggled with that a lot.

“So, just setting time for when to study and when to focus on football, just having a real set schedule for everything. You just have to be very diligent in that regard.”

That diligence has worked in the classroom. Long hopes it has a similar payoff once he’s able to get back on the football field.

“When the time comes, I think we'll all be ready to play,” Long said. “That’s the mindset we all have.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau