Sophomore back to lead Panthers offense

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By Scott Akanewich

Noah Long knew something was up last year when he was issued his helmet before the start of his freshman season.

“When I got mine, it was a SpeedFlex,” said Long. “The freshman team doesn’t get those.”

At that point, Long realized he would at least be a member of the junior varsity squad during his first season of Liberty Hill football, but he had an inkling something more was in the offing.

“Finally, I just asked (former head) Coach (Jeff) Walker and he told me I was on the varsity,” he said. “It was an amazing feeling, but it was shocking – I was overcome with happiness.”

Fast-forward a year and Long finds himself in the Panthers’ starting lineup as the Purple-and-Gold prepare to host Ellison in the season-opener.

Last season, Long was fourth on the depth chart behind seniors Blake Simpson, Trey Seward and Eric De La Cruz, but still got plenty of valuable playing time in gaining 421 yards on 39 carries, including six touchdowns.

Most impressive, though, was his ability to break off big plays, which his hefty 10.8 yards-per-carry average attested to, including a 77-yard scoring run against Rouse in the regional finals – part of a 56-42 Liberty Hill victory.

So, despite his limited time on the varsity squad, Long has already seen plenty of action and his early success can be attributed to the guidance he received before he even reached the high school level, he said.

“I think I’ve had the ability to adapt quickly,” said Long. “My coaches in junior high really helped me a lot.”

According to head coach Kent Walker, Long has the proper mentality to have succeeded last season when other players of his relative inexperience may have failed.

“Not only does Noah have the ability, but he also had the maturity to be able to play on Friday night – he doesn’t carry himself like a sophomore, but like an upperclassman,” said Walker. “He gets along well with everyone and has a great work ethic.”

Long said it was his teammates last season welcoming into the fold with open arms that made his transition from junior high football to the high school varsity gridiron that much easier.

“It was a respect thing – I had to learn I wasn’t going to be the main guy,” he said. “I looked at those guys and realized they were on a whole other level.”

Of course, that was then and this is now, which means Long will be leaned on to provide the kind of leadership and steady play he saw his Panthers predecessors possess when he was still an understudy, which could pose the potential for the weight to be too much for a sophomore to bear – but not for him, he said.

“I wouldn’t say it’s pressure,” said Long. “I look at it more as an opportunity to go out there and show what I can do, which is to run the football.”

Long said one of the aspects of his game he needs to work on further is his ability to quickly read what unfolds before him when the ball is snapped.

“You have to train yourself how to read the blocks,” he said. “Also, I need to go with the flow and have the discipline to understand when to fight for that extra yard.”

With an entirely new starting offensive unit this season – including himself – Long said the cohesiveness required to run smoothly has already progressed by leaps and bounds.

“It’s been a work in progress,” he said. “But, we’re very close now to where we need to be – especially compared to the beginning of summer. We’re becoming a well-oiled machine.”

One change for Long from last season is the position he’ll line up in, as he’s been moved from tailback to halfback – although in the Panthers’ Slot-T offense, it’s more semantics than anything.

“The position itself really isn’t that different,” said Long, who checks in at 5-foot-10 and 175 pounds. “Only as a halfback, sometimes I’m the lead blocker and have to do some headhunting.”

Walker said he wasn’t too familiar with Long before he arrived on the high school campus last season, but word had gotten back to him about his game.

“I didn’t see him, but I heard about how good he was and that we had a kid at the junior high who was pretty special,” he said. “It seemed like every time Noah touched the ball, something explosive would happen.”

Long said a watershed moment for him was a long kickoff return he had in last season’s second game against Del Valle – a 71-yard sprint he almost brought all the way back before being caught inside the 10-yard line.

“I realized I could do this,” he said. “I knew I belonged.”

However, despite his rapid rise through the ranks, Long said he’s still a bit surprised when he looks around at where he currently resides in his football existence.

“Two years ago, I never would’ve saw this,” he said. “I’m blessed and thankful to be here.”

But, not without plenty of help and support along the way, that is.

“I think about all the people and the relationships I’ve already formed,” said Long. “I don’t know where I’d be without them.”

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