NASHVILLE – David Long Jr. wasn't sure what to expect at the start of the 2021 season.
As he looked around him on the field and in meeting rooms, he saw inside linebackers Rashaan Evans and Jayon Brown, two veterans with more experience than him.
But he never stopped in his own pursuit to find a way to improve, and to get on the field.
"I just knew to come in and just keep working, and whenever the opportunity came, take full advantage," Long said on Wednesday. "That was always the plan."
Long's work and perseverance paid off, and the Titans are being rewarded for it.
A sixth-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft out of West Virginia, Long has been one of the most consistent players on the defense this season. In the team's win on Sunday against the Chiefs, Long racked up eight tackles and two passes defensed, one of which resulted in an interception by Evans.
In the two previous games, Long recorded 12 tackles against the Jaguars, and 14 tackles against the Chiefs.
After seven games, Long currently leads the Titans with 51 tackles – the next closest is outside linebacker Harold Landry's 37. Long has been credited with five quarterback pressures, and four tackles for a loss. Long didn't play in the season opener against the Cardinals.
Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said he loves Long's approach.
"David really wants to do well," Vrabel said. "Sometimes you can look in a guys eyes and when he makes a mistake it hurts and it bothers him. He wants to do well. He puts a lot into it. I think he continues to make big plays, be productive, play hard, energy. It would appear that he loves playing football and I know that. That is something that we can view. I think you guys see it the same way. He is never perfect. He makes mistakes just like everybody else, but he plays fast, he triggers, and he has been doing a nice job in there for us."
Titans inside linebackers coach Jim Haslett said Long works to put himself in a position to be successful.
"I love how he spends time, he takes notes, writes things down," Haslett said of Long. "It's important to him. And he is very instinctive – he has a good nose for the ball. All of those things add up.
"He likes football, he likes being in meetings, he likes being on the field. He takes it serious, and it is nice to coach a guy like that. … We put a lot on his plate last week going into the game, lining people up, and I thought he did an outstanding job. And, of course, he's been very productive on the field."
Along the way, Long said his mission is also to be an energy guy for the Titans, inspiring others with his play.
The football field is where he feels he can really let loose, and show some fight.
Long, in fact, was born into a boxing family – his father, David Sr., is a former professional boxer who went 12-5-2 as a heavyweight. He once fought future world champ Deonta Wilder.
"We'd be here all day if I told you where it came from," Long said of his passion for the game. "I just think it comes from where I grew up, my highs and lows, and it comes out on the field. Off the field I am pretty quiet, but on the field it is different. I can let all that out, the road it took me to get here. That's where I let it out."
A 5-foot-11, 227-pounder, Long of course made his marks in previous seasons as well.
As a rookie, Long stepped in and played well down the stretch while filling in for an injured Brown. Long started the team's playoff win at Baltimore that year, and he finished with eight tackles in that contest. In 2020, Long played in all 14 games for the second straight year, starting five games. He tallied 50 tackles that season.
With starts in the past six games, Long now feels comfortable, and confident.
"It feels good (to be able to contribute)," Long said. "My main challenge myself is just to be consistent. I just want to come in every day ready to work.
"(I feel like I am more) confident, comfortable, however you want to look at it. I feel like I am just seeing it, more comfortable and growing in every aspect of the game."