At Northfield football’s summer camp in July, coach Bubba Sullivan was presented with a dilemma.
His linebackers coach was unavailable that day, meaning a key position group might be left relatively unattended during a valuable day of summer practice. Then, Sullivan turned to Luke Stanga, a senior captain who has led the Raiders in tackles each of the last two years as a linebacker, and told him to take over the group for a day.
Of course, the reason Stanga was available to coach was because he wasn’t available to play due to an injury that’s stretched into the first two weeks of the season and still doesn’t possess a definite expiration date. While he’s been out, Stanga has been helping coach up the linebackers filling in during his absence, while also signaling in defensive play calls each of the first two weeks of the year.
“Since I’m not out on the field I just want to help the team anyway I can,” Stanga said. “Bubba talked to me about being the signal caller for our defense since one of the coaches was gone. I know all our signs, and we didn’t have to have someone else do it who doesn’t know it.”
The Raiders would much rather have Stanga on the field, but the alternative hasn’t been a total loss, either.
While his friendship with his teammates means he doesn’t quite fit the mold of a former player who returns to Northfield after finishing college to join the coaching staff, his different, and young, voice for coaching instruction has been an asset.
“He’s been really like a coach for us,” Sullivan said. “Even in the summer at our July camp he was basically coaching the linebackers, so that’s how we’ve treated it. He’s done a lot of helping kids with drills, or he’s seen something on the sideline and relaying signals.”
In a program that typically graduates players from the freshman team to a year or two on the junior varsity squad before receiving steady varsity reps for the first time as juniors or seniors, Stanga has been a varsity starter since he was a sophomore.
It’s not a stretch to say Stanga is the best-equipped player on the roster to do what he’s doing given that experience and knowledge of the team’s playbook. In fact, a pair of the linebackers he’s helping are sophomores Darrin Kuyper and Mason Pagel, who are attempting to make the same jump from the freshman team to varsity.
“I wouldn’t say as well as a coach, but I know our schemes pretty well,” Stanga said. “I just like to help the younger guys get it, because with Mason and Kuyper as sophomores playing linebacker, I know what you need to go through and the adjustments you need to make from playing as a freshman last year to playing varsity as a sophomore. I’ve really tried to help them in that transition, and I think it’s going well so far.”
“He’s a natural leader that way,” Sullivan added.
In addition to signaling in plays during games, Stanga is taking what he calls “mental reps” on each down. Essentially, he projects himself onto the field and imagines what he would do if he were on the field.
If the actions of Northfield’s linebackers don’t match Stanga’s imagination, he’ll go over the differences once they return to the sideline.
“Then we can communicate with what they’re seeing and collaborate with what’s happening to get the best results out of that,” Stanga said.
Of course, those mental reps are for Stanga as well, since he’s itching to put pads back on.
There’s still nothing official on his status for Friday night’s clash at Mankato West, but Sullivan said he’s hopeful his star linebacker he projected as a future Division II talent is back on the field soon.
“It’s been hard,” Stanga said. “I love football. I love playing, so it’s been different. It’ll make me respect the game a lot more when I get back and take every rep as an opportunity and (remember) every rep is given to me to play with and I can’t take anything for granted.”