Thomas established himself as a dominant force and catalyst for the dramatic improvement of an offense that had perpetually struggled. His efforts went a long way toward allowing the Browns to nearly make the playoffs for the first time in 2002.
Long paid close attention to Thomas' NFL progress while putting together an impressive season of his own at another Big Ten school, Michigan.
"It gives me hope," he said. "It excites me that I can go in and make an impact something like that."
There is reason to believe that Long could be another Thomas in 2008. He is massive, standing 6-foot-7 and weighing 313 pounds. He is extremely strong. He is very tough. He is highly intelligent and disciplined (he drew only two penalties in his college career, a holding call in his freshman red-shirt season and a false start last year).
Add it together and you have the primary reason that Kevin Colbert, the Pittsburgh Steelers' director of football operations, called this year's crop of offensive tackles the best he has seen in 24 years.
Long nearly left Michigan after his junior season to enter the NFL, but decided he could benefit from an extra year of college football. He did. He wound up becoming the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year and establishing himself as a potential top-five pick in April's draft. A year ago, only Thomas would have had that distinction.
"I feel I'm a smarter and better player than I was last year," Long said. "I'm smarter in identifying the defenses. I worked on the little things in my game and I've gotten a lot better."
NFL personnel types gathered here are likely to be impressed with what they see from Long's workouts. He should do well in weight-lifting and show good speed in the 40-yard dash.
But they are likely to be even more impressed with his attitude.
"They will get intensity," Long said when asked of what an NFL team could expect from him. "I come to every single practice or game or workout, anything, intense … with a passion. I love the game; I love every part of it.
"I'm hard-working. And out on that field, I'm mean. I try to pile-drive someone into the ground."
That's music to the ears of any NFL coach or general manager. So is this: Long only gave up two sacks in his college career, one as a red-shirt freshman and one last season against Ohio State's Vernon Gholston.
Since the end of his senior season at Michigan, Long has focused on reconfiguring his body. He has changed his diet, eating much healthier than he had through his first three years of college. The result is a dramatic drop in body fat and a huge increase in muscle.
Long also has worked on improving his strength, balance, and flexibility.
In short, He is doing everything within his power to enhance his chances of doing what Thomas did a year ago.
"I'm going to have to follow in his footsteps and represent for the Big Ten," Long said. "He showed me and all the other rookies that you can come in and make a huge impact, have a great season."
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