When Jake Long went down with a serious leg injury at the end of fall camp in August, I was afraid the mammoth right tackle had pulled Michigan’s national title hopes with him. The moment defensive tackle Gabe Watson and center Mark Bihl – who weigh a combined 634 pounds – locked up and fell on Long’s left ankle in practice, the Wolverines’ chances for making the Rose Bowl took a big hit.

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We’ll never know exactly what this team could have accomplished with the redshirt sophomore playing at full strength all season, but one thing is pretty clear: Lloyd Carr and his players are much better off with Long in the game than on the sidelines with crutches and a protective boot on his foot.

Over a month ago – with Michigan 1-1 after a loss to Notre Dame – I expressed my concerns in this space about the state of the Wolverines’ offensive line. The season’s first seven games made it apparent that many of my fears were well-founded.

Aside from the opener against Northern Illinois, Chad Henne was sacked two or three times in every one of Michigan’s next six games. The Wolverines’ opponents were getting penetration, the pocket was breaking down, and holes weren’t being opened all that frequently for the running backs. Sure, Mike Hart had a few spectacular games, but his production came largely from long runs (at Michigan State) and all those times when “he made something out of nothing,” as we all like to say. What we don’t always think about in those situations is why there’s nothing there to begin with. Wouldn’t Hart and his backups be even better if they had room to run on a regular basis?

In my Sept. 15 column, I cited a loss of talent – with the departure of David Baas and Long’s injury – along with injury issues and chemistry as the major obstacles stacked against the line. Long’s surprising return last Saturday in Iowa City gives the blockers a huge boost in all three of these areas.

Long is probably Michigan’s best NFL prospect. His quick feet, solid hand technique, explosiveness and sheer strength complement his 6-foot-7, 330-pound frame and make him an ideal bookend on the offensive line. His learning curve in his time as a Wolverine has been extremely quick, and he’s shown all the necessary effort and desire to make him a potential first-round draft pick, barring another injury.

Long played in every game a year ago, starting the last 10 and bonding effectively with his fellow linemen. So he already has plenty of experience playing with tackle Adam Stenavich, guard Matt Lentz and all-purpose lineman Rueben Riley, who had filled in admirably for Long over the past few weeks. Long’s comeback will likely boost the morale of center Adam Kraus as well. Kraus wasn’t a regular last season, but the first-year starter is Long’s best friend on the team. It’s hard to believe Kraus’s already-solid performance won’t improve with his buddy playing two spots over.

The offensive line was noticeably better against Iowa in Long’s 2005 debut. Despite boasting nationally renowned linebackers Abdul Hodge and Chad Greenway, the Hawkeyes failed to amass a single sack. Henne had more time to throw than usual. Backup running back Kevin Grady, who received the bulk of the carries after Hart’s early exit due to injury, picked up 62 yards on 18 carries without bothering to hit the holes his linemen opened for him. And Jerome Jackson, Michigan’s fourth-string tailback, gained 44 yards and added the winning touchdown – which followed Long’s block – in overtime despite not entering the game until the fourth quarter.

Long didn’t play the whole game. Riley got significant time at the beginning of the contest before his now-healthy teammate saw the majority of the snaps in the second half. Still, Long made his presence felt when he was both on and off the field, inspiring his fellow Wolverines with encouragement when he wasn’t in the action and dominating defensive linemen when he was.

It’s too late for Michigan to climb back into the national championship picture, but the Big Ten Championship remains up for grabs – as long as the Wolverines win out and get plenty of help. While it would’ve been nice to see Long on the line for every game this year, there’s plenty he can do to help his team in the conference race.

Saturday was a start. Let’s just hope he stays healthy enough to see the end of it.

Gabe Edelson can be reached at gedelson@umich.edu.

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