Even Rutgers linebacker Steve Longa couldn’t believe his own numbers.
The redshirt junior is second in the nation with 85 tackles. But when a classmate congratulated him on that fact Monday, Longa just nodded politely and ignored it. He didn’t think he actually had that many.
“Yeah, I didn’t believe him,” Longa said with a laugh. “I was polite about it. I didn’t tell him, ‘No, get out of here. You’re lying.’ But then a couple reporters brought it up and asked me how I felt about it, and that’s when I knew it was true.”
Longa can’t be blamed for his doubt, because his numbers are nearly unbelievable on paper. He boasts 11 more stops than the Big Ten’s second-leading tackler – Illinois’ Clayton Fejedelem has 74 – and he’s on pace for the conference’s second-most tackles in the last decade. (Iowa’s Abdul Hoge had 158 stops in 2005; Longa is on pace for 157 if Rutgers earns a bowl berth.)
Longa can feel the difference in his play this season, evidenced by waking with stiffer legs and sorer joints. It’s nothing to be concerned about, he insisted, but it just goes to show how much more physical he has been – and how much more often he visits Rutgers’ Sunday masseuse. In just the last two games, he has racked up 35 tackles. Only two other Rutgers players boast more tackles on the season.
“I think what you’re seeing is the evolution of a good football player,” coach Kyle Flood said. “He’s in a spot in our defense that we need somebody who can get people on the ground and make tackles, so he gets a lot of opportunities and he makes the most of them.”
Longa’s improvement has been evident. Although the system basically relies on Longa to read where the defensive line funnels the runner, he rarely has made the wrong read or missed a tackle. That’s reflected on the stat sheet. Last season, at this point, he had just 46 stops. Now, his production has increased by more than 75 percent.
He didn’t seem to believe that number at first, either. He asked for it to be repeated twice. But he’s not surprised at all by his improvement, not after switching from the middle to the outside last year.
“If you stay in the same spot for two years and you see the same team twice in a row, you have no choice but to get better,” Longa said. “My numbers had no choice but to go up. This stability allows me to know the game better.”
Last season, for example, Longa often took on the fullback when runs were coming his way. This season, he can better anticipate where the runner will end up – without taking on an extra blocker.
Those changes have made Longa an underrated star on an otherwise struggling defense. He now has an outside shot to break the school’s single-season tackling record – or at least come close to it – since that number stands at 161 by Brian Sheridan (1997). Even if Rutgers doesn’t make a bowl, Longa is on pace to finish fifth all-time in single-season tackles.
At this quick pace, Longa might even wind up with the most (or second-most) tackles in school history. And that’s not lost on him.
“That’s like the long-term goal right there,” he said. “You’re talking about the big picture. I haven’t thought about it. But would it mean something to me? Of course.
“It would mean something to everybody. It would mean something to my family. I won’t lie to you – it means something to me. But I’m not looking at it, I’m not thinking about it. I just think that’s a waste of energy.”
But, after his start to this season, he’s not discounting that possibility. He was surprised to hear his numbers Monday. He’s not surprised anymore.