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ASU football's Antonio Longino emerging down the stretch

The redshirt senior linebacker is playing his best football en route to back-to-back Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors

Redshirt senior linebacker Antonio Longino (32) reacts after a play in the third quarter against Washington on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. The Sun Devils defeated the Huskies 27-17.
Redshirt senior linebacker Antonio Longino (32) reacts after a play in the third quarter against Washington on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, at Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe. The Sun Devils defeated the Huskies 27-17.

Entering the 2015 season, there were substantial concerns about the production ASU football would generate from its "Devilbacker" position. 

After all, it had not gotten a true fit for the pass-rushing spot since Carl Bradford graduated after the 2013 season.

A variety of players tried out for the position: freshman defensive lineman JoJo Wicker, redshirt freshman Ismael Murphy-Richardson and even sophomore running back Kalen Ballage. Things eventually narrowed down to two: redshirt senior Antonio Longino and sophomore linebacker Christian Sam.

Longino had been part of the failed experiment at the position in 2014 before switching to the "Will" inside linebacker spot and excelling. Sam, on the other hand, was still an unproven prospect.

Graham went with the experience of Longino, and the decision has paid huge dividends.

Longino was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week on Monday for the second consecutive week, marking the first time in program history that an offensive or defensive player had taken home the honors in consecutive weeks. This marks the tenth time an ASU player has taken the defensive player of the week honors, the most of any Pac-12 program during that time period.

"Tony's had a remarkable year and a guy that, I think, has really positioned himself to play a bunch more football," Graham said. "He's a heck of a player. He's a guy that can play inside or outside linebacker, and now he's shown this year he can land on the end of the line of scrimmage and really play well. So I don't think we've had anybody that's developed and improved any more than what he has."

The East Cleveland, Ohio native earned the honors after submitting a nine-tackle, four-sack performance in the team's 52-37 win over Arizona in the Territorial Cup. It was the first four-sack game for ASU since Derron Ware in 2006. This comes one game after having four tackles for loss with two sacks against Washington. Longino currently leads the Pac-12 in sacks (10) and tackles for loss (19).

"He's an All Pac-12 performer defensively and has been phenomenal," Graham said. "You look at the numbers that he's put up is pretty impressive. Not only that, I mean, I think he's been a big part of why we've led the league in sacks by almost ten. I think we have almost ten more than everybody else, TFLs. Finally, in the last two weeks we started rolling out those takeaways."

Graham said Longino's development, particularly in the last couple weeks, has been unexpected.

"His upside is he's only getting started, when you improve that dramatically the way he has, and then just his development, just his awareness of the game, and just some of the plays he makes, he's really been impressive. Each week, it's getting better and better and better, and that's happened throughout the whole season, but it's been a dramatic jump in the last three or four weeks."

Watch the highlights from the Territorial Cup here:

Now, against Cal, Longino and the ASU defense will be charged with trying to pressure one of the nation's top quarterbacks in Jared Goff. Goff has thrown for 3,710 yards and 32 touchdowns with 13 interceptions this season for the 6-5 Bears.

"We're playing the best quarterback we've played all year long," Graham said. "I think we're playing the best receiving corps maybe we've played all year long, with maybe the exception of USC. I think these guys are very much in the same regard as far as their talent at receiver. So they're very, very capable of scoring points and got a lot of respect for Coach (Sonny) Dykes. They're a very well coached team. They've lost a lot of close games."

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