Ever since Steve Longa watched his first football game as a high school freshman, he’s had a thirst for learning the sport.

He didn’t have the foundation that most kids do. Longa’s childhood was spent in Cameroon playing the other football, which his dad played professionally. That’s where he got his quick feet from.

He had to learn American football the hard way. Without countless hours in the film room, Longa would’ve never become a prized high school prospect. He would’ve never become a tackling machine playing multiple linebacker positions at Rutgers. He certainly never would’ve put himself in position to be an NFL draft pick.

Eight years of doing his homework, he hopes, will give him the high marks he needs come April.

“You can be the best athlete ever. You can run the fastest 40, you can bench 30 or 40 reps of 225. You can look like a freak,” Longa said. “But if you don’t grasp the playbook, what is that all gonna do for you? You have to know the playbook.

“The coaches have to trust you. Your teammates have to trust you to be out there on the field. I know that I’m gonna gain my coaches’ trust and my teammates’ trust and I know I’m gonna make it with that alone. I’m not gonna be talking about my physical abilities. I’m just talking about me being a student of the game and willing to learn everything and not settling.”

Longa didn’t overlook the physical aspects of the pre-draft evaluation period. His three straight 100-plus tackle seasons weren’t going to be showcased at the combine or at his pro day.

That’s why he spent two months training at the Parabolic Performance and Rehab Center. Longa’s focus was to master the Olympic lifts to prepare him for the combine. As you can see here, that wasn’t much of a problem:

Still, he knew what scouts were saying about his physical abilities heading into Indianapolis.

“I don’t think he’s going to test all that well at the combine and his size will work against him, but I love his toughness and production,” an NFC director of scouting said of Longa before the combine. “He’s a backup with some special teams ability, but it wouldn’t shock me if he ended up working his way into a starter’s role at some point.”

Longa had some weight to gain, but not as much as some scouts might’ve thought. Even though he was listed between 220-225 pounds on media guides at Rutgers, Longa insisted he hadn’t played at that weight in over a year. He played his final season in Piscataway in the 230s. When he tipped the scales at 241 pounds in Indianapolis, Longa quieted some concerns about being undersized.

He met with 29 teams that weekend and admitted that he considered himself a late bloomer.

“The reason I say that I’ve got a lot to learn is that I want to be the best. I want to think just like my defensive coordinators think,” Longa said. “That’s why I keep working the way that I work. If teams meet with me and they talk football with me, they’re going to understand that I’m very smart. I can tackle, I can run to the ball, I can make all the plays you want me to make. People know that. I’m not worried about that.

“The physical things, I just have to go out there and perform to the best of my ability. I did. I did what I had to do.”

Longa looked even better at his pro day, where he ran a 4.68 40-yard dash, he had 21 bench press reps at 225 pounds, and he recorded a 4.23-second 20-yard shuttle, all of which would’ve put him in the top 10 among linebackers at the combine.

The New York Giants and Miami Dolphins both expressed interest in meeting with him following his showing on Wednesday.

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It wasn’t long ago that interviewing with NFL teams was a non-existent thought for the Cameroon native. After moving to the United States in 2007, Longa didn’t step on to a football field until his freshman year of high school.

But by his sophomore year, the new kid on the block was already impressing his peers.

“My teammates would tell me, ‘We see you as one of those guys that can make it to the NFL,’” Longa said. “For me, I didn’t even realize it until I went to college.”

That realization came a little later than some might’ve assumed. It didn’t come when he racked up 123 tackles and earned Freshman All-American honors. Longa specifically remembered when it came together him during his redshirt sophomore year. Actually, it was a game Rutgers fans probably tried to forget.

Lost in the mix of a 45-3 beatdown at the hands of Michigan State, which finished the year a top-five team, was the fact that Longa had a game-high 11 tackles. Against an offense loaded with future pros — MSU had 2015 draft picks Jeremy Langford, Tony Lippett, Keith Mumphery and likely 2016 draft picks Jack Allen, Aaron Burbridge, Jack Conklin and Connor Cook — Longa realized that he wasn’t second-guessing himself anymore. For the first time, he felt like he could truly read an offense and go full speed. The physical and mental preparation all clicked.

“That’s when I knew I was good,” he said.

By the time Longa’s junior season ended, he had 342 career tackles, which was good for eighth on the school’s all-time list. He was the second player in the program’s 146-year history to record 100 tackles in three straight seasons. With another year of eligibility remaining, Rutgers’ Defensive MVP could’ve racked up even more accolades.

But those three prolific years were what told Longa that was ready for the NFL. After he announced his early declaration, he met with his position coaches, all of whom agreed that he was physically and mentally prepared for the next level.

RELATED: NFL.com grades every B1G draft prospect

As he continues his preparations for draft day, Longa isn’t getting wrapped up in projections. Mel Kiper Jr. called him a possible fourth or fifth-round pick, while others have him slotted has a late Day 3 selection. No matter what, Longa said, he feels like he’ll be a steal.

“Wherever I end up, it’s going to be a blessing regardless. It’s going to be a blessing for myself and it’s going to be a blessing for that team,” he said. “We’re going to have a great relationship and a long partnership.”

Longa believes he’s a product of Rutgers’ system. He hopes to follow in the footsteps of guys like Jason McCourty and Logan Ryan, who didn’t come into the NFL as highly touted prospects but have solidified themselves as franchise players with the teams that drafted them. Even if he slips in the draft, Longa won’t regret his decision to come out early.

He learned a while ago that it’s not when or where you start that determines your path.

“Regardless of what anybody says about you, you’re still going to be the one that’s on that field, you’re still going to be the one playing the game and putting that work in to make a roster or be a starter,” he said. “Deep down in my heart, I know what I’m capable of. I know that if somebody takes a chance on me or sees what I see in myself, I know they’re not going to be disappointed.

“It only takes one.”