Linebacker leans on teammates during historic season for Rutgers
Lost in the murky waters of its worst season in five years, few could fathom the Rutgers football team having one of the nation's best linebackers on its roster.
But the Scarlet Knights do possess one who is currently in the midst of staging the finest performance at the position in the last 25 years of the program.
Steve Longa is a tackling machine, sweeping sideline-to-sideline to bring down any ball carriers on his radar. On a defense that is buried at the bottom of the Big Ten in almost every statistical category, the junior weakside linebacker sticks out.
In his third year for the Knights (3-6, 1-4), Longa has steadily scaled the school's tackling charts and after managing 11 tackles at No. 16 Michigan last Saturday, the Cameroon native became only the second player in school history to top 100 tackles in each of his first three seasons.
"It's the exact progression we thought we would get when we recruited him," said head coach Kyle Flood. "Somebody who we thought was really ideal for the position he plays now, although he played 'Mike' one year."
Longa's 102 tackles through nine games in 2015 lead the conference and stand second in the nation behind Kentrell Brothers of Missouri with 117. Longa's 67 solo tackles are fourth in the country.
The 6-foot-1, 225-pounder began his career on the Banks in the middle, before being moved outside last fall. Now in his second year at the "Will," Longa has grown, leaped and bounded, equal to his sophomore season's total tackles with three games to spare. He even leads the league in tackles per game at 11.3 per contest.
Ever the consummate teammate, Longa continues to deflect any personal credit to the performance of the 10 guys surrounding him on the defensive side of the ball.
“Like I always say, it’s not really me, it’s the people around me that make me who I am, starting with God giving me this talent,” Longa said. “(Then) my teammates doing what they do in order to let me make these plays … And then me just being a student, trying to get better and trying to soak up everything I can.”
Beyond his teammates' contributions, it's the speed of the Saddle Brook High School (New Jersey) product that allows him to spring off blocks from fullbacks, tight ends and linemen trying to push to the second level. It separates Longa from college football's elite at the linebacker position.
"Steve runs to the ball very well. He's got excellent instincts," Flood said. "He's in a position where we funnel a lot of things to him, where he needs to make tackles and he does."
Quentin Gause's strength serves as the perfect compliment to Longa's speed. Also in the midst of his best season on the Banks, the strongside linebacker has tallied a career-high 76 tackles through three quarters of the season, after finishing with 72 in total in 2014.
The senior captain suggested that he and Longa have fed off of each other in 2015, with Gause penetrating the line of scrimmage and Longa pulling down running backs who penetrate the defensive line.
"Me and Steve, we watch film with (linebackers) coach (Bob) Fraser and we watch film together,” Gause said. “What we do is talk about the little things that need improvement, as a team, as a whole and as a linebacking corps. And we just try to work on those little things."
While the linebackers focus on those little things, the rest of the Rutgers defense has been dealing with big problems.
The Knights have surrendered 49.5 points on average over the last four games, including three consecutive lopsided losses where then-No. 1 Ohio State, Wisconsin and the Wolverines combined to outscore Rutgers, 146-33, over that span.
“Different teams, different mistakes, it’s really not the same,” Longa said after the loss in Ann Arbor. “(The teams) got different schemes and it’s a one-game season. We gotta prepare for the team and the weekend and match up the plays against what they do. But it’s not the same mistakes, not at all.”
Longa calls on the familial dynamic within the program as a cushion after the hardest falls. As dark as the days have been for the Knights recently, Longa remains resolute that Rutgers can turn it around.
“I love these guys, we love what we do and we wouldn’t change it for nothing," Longa. "… But we’re getting better and we gon’ get there. How long it takes — I don’t know what tomorrow holds … but I know we’re gonna get there eventually because we keep moving forward.”
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