BOURBONNAIS — Safety Brandon Hardin stripped the football from running back Armando Allen in Thursday morning's practice, scooped it up and sprinted 90 yards to the opposite end zone.
And he was almost caught from behind — by 313-pound guard Kyle Long.
“I just kind of put my head down and started running,” said the Bears' first-round pick. “I saw which direction he was going, and I tried to get a good angle on it. Just trying to save a touchdown. You don't want turnovers to turn into touchdowns.
“That's something that they preach here. We're going to show some speed.”
Usually team speed doesn't come from the interior offensive linemen, though.
Speed is just one of the physical attributes that led the Bears to use the 20th overall pick on Long in April. It was a reach, according to some, considering Long started just five games of major-college football in his only season at Oregon after two years at Saddleback Community College.
Long didn't even play offensive line until his second season at Saddleback, when he switched from defensive end. The son of Hall of Fame defensive end Howie Long still has a lot to learn about offensive line play in the NFL, but he already has shown he's a quick study.
Long missed all of the Bears' off-season work because of the NFL rule preventing rookies from participating until their schools finish finals. But Thursday, in just the sixth training-camp practice, Long got his most extended playing time yet with the first team, at right guard, where he is competing with James Brown.
Still, the 24-year-old rookie who began his collegiate career as a pitcher at Florida State with a 90-plus fastball isn't making any assumptions.
“Who's counting?” he said of his increased snaps with the big boys. “I don't think it's fair to count first-team reps as progress. I feel like you look at the film. You go in there with your line and your coach and get critiqued.
“You need to be able to learn from the criticism you get, because it's all constructive. And you want to become a better football player every day. And that's what I'm here to do.”
Coach Marc Trestman, who doesn't dispense effusive individual praise lightly, won't anoint Long anytime soon, but he's clearly on the fast track.
“Kyle is working in an ascending manner — better every day and it's not just happening slowly,” Trestman said after Thursday's practice. “He's picking things up and becoming more comfortable every day.
“He jumped offsides (Thursday), the only guy who jumped offsides offensively, but we feel that he is making progress. The competition continues, and we'll see how that goes for the next three weeks and into the games.”
Obviously the Bears want Long to win the starting job and justify their high draft pick, but they won't need to force him into that spot if he continues to improve at the pace he has shown early.
Long has had to play catch-up because of his absence in the off-season, but he's gaining on the starting job as quickly as he did on Lloyd at Thursday's practice.
“He's really a smart guy,” said Aaron Kromer, the offensive coordinator and offensive-line coach. “He's smart, strong and tough, and that's what you're looking for in an offensive lineman, so I don't think it's going to take him long to figure it out.”
If the Bears are force-feeding Long, it hasn't fazed him. He's clearing his plate with ease and coming back for seconds.
“You line up against an all-pro player in Henry Melton, you know you're going to get your work in,” the rookie said. “And Stephen Paea … there's strength, there's speed, there's all kinds of stuff across the ball. And it creates a lot of issues for an offensive line.
“When you go against the best guys, you're kind of forced to rise to the occasion. And if you don't, which happens sometimes, you take your lumps and move on and you have to forget about it.”
Mistakes for a player as inexperienced as Long are inevitable, but he uses his baseball background to deal with adversity.
“I remember when I was a pitcher, I used to have to develop short-term amnesia,” he said. “You give up a home run, you get the next guy up. That's kind of what taking these snaps and reps are like with the first team.”
ŸFollow Bob's NFL reports on Twitter @BobLeGere, and check out his Bear Essentials blog at dailyherald.com/sports.Copyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.