After Arizona State got stomped 38-17 by Texas A&M in its season opener, its offense was heavily critiqued as the team’s obvious problem. The Aggies' edge rushers dominated ASU’s inexperienced offense tackles and Texas A&M’s defensive line undoubtedly won the battle in the trenches.
But while the Aggies’ two edge rushers took the limelight, the Sun Devils’ defense – especially its main edge rusher – was left in the dark.
In fact, he was shutout.
Recording zero tackles against the Aggies, ASU senior Devil backer Antonio Longino was as quiet as the Sun Devils’ dormant offense. Some may have questioned if he was even there.
However, just as he was the personification of ASU's stumble out of the gate this season, so too was Longino in a much better performance Saturday from one of the key members of ASU’s attack-oriented defense.
“Longino was phenomenal,” ASU coach Todd Graham said in his post-game press conference Saturday night. “I think we had over 10 [tackles for loss] and eight sacks, something like that. So we got after the quarterback pretty good.”
The 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior Devil backer burst into the spotlight in ASU’s 48-23 victory at Sun Devil Stadium Saturday night after leading the team with eight tackles, 2.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss.
Alongside junior SAM linebacker Salamo Fiso and sophomore WILL linebacker Christian Sam, the trio combined for 20 of ASU’s 55 tackles on the night. Consistently getting pressure on Buffaloes’ junior quarterback Sefo Liufau, ASU’s defense was able to shake Colorado’s offense enough to stifle its productivity and force two turnovers.
“For the secondary not having to cover for as long, and when you got a guy like that making plays and disrupting the quarterback, they then start thinking about that,” ASU senior safety Jordan Simone said regarding Longino’s ability to pressure the quarterback. “They start getting rid of the ball quicker and making choices and we were able to capitalize on some of those mistakes he made.”
Longino specifically showed off his speed coming off the edge by forcing a fumble by Liufau off a third-and-6 play in the third quarter. The Sun Devils took over at Colorado’s 35-yard line and ultimately scored a touchdown off a 10-yard touchdown pass from ASU senior quarterback Mike Bercovici to senior wide receiver Devin Lucien to widen ASU’s lead, 38-10.
The success Longino is starting to have at the position comes in part from Graham’s willingness to adapt his defensive vision for the Devil backer position. Ideally, the Devil position in Graham’s defense is a 3-point pass rusher.
In 2012 and 2013, former ASU Devil Carl Bradford exemplified everything Graham was looking for in a Devil backer. He was able to rush off the edge with a hand in the ground and constantly impact the quarterback in tandem with former ASU defensive lineman Will Sutton.
But when Bradford decided to forego the 2014 season and enter the NFL Draft as a junior, the Sun Devils were left with no clear substitute for the position and the puzzle pieces that made up their personnel never quite fit together seamlessly.
ASU’s 2014 season was comprised of a variety of different starting defensive lines and linebackers due to ASU’s shortage of players that were able to fit the type of player needed for the Devil position.
Graham originally tried to put Longino at Devil, but he was unable to perform up to Graham’s high standards. With no true player who had the ability to be an every down edge rusher, ASU went so far as to change to a heavier front on the defensive line with then-sophomore Edmond Boateng acting as the extra defensive end.
ASU shifted Longino from Devil to WILL linebacker, where his flourished playing next to Moeakiola and Fiso. Longino got his first career start at WILL linebacker against Stanford in October 2014 and led the team with eight tackles and added a tackle for loss and a forced fumble.
Longino had great success playing at WILL, setting a new career-best with 11 tackles against Utah last season and also recorded a pass breakup and a half tackle for loss. In the Sun Bowl, he eclipsed his 11 tackles with his current career-high, 17.
Acting as the WILL in ASU’s defensive scheme, it seemed like Longino had found his place, but with the emergence of Sam as a true WILL linebacker for the 2015 season and highly-touted 2015 recruit Davon Durant getting suspended indefinitely from ASU’s team in the first few weeks of spring practice, the Devil position was suddenly a wide-open liability.
With no other true option, Graham and his staff decided on Longino as the starting Devil backer for the 2015 season. By finding a spot for Longino on the field, Graham has been able to play what he perceives his best athletes together with Moeakiola, Fiso, and Sam all holding down their positions as linebackers.
But instead of making Longino play with his hand in the ground, Graham has adapted to Longino strengths, letting his come off the edge in a two-point stance rather than Graham’s original vision of the Devil holding a three-point stance.
“He (Longino) is coming off the edge most of the time, so it's something he does pretty well and we have adapted what we're doing to what he does well,” Graham said. “So, I think he's played really well. He played really well last week and I thought tonight was his best game of his career since he's been here. So a lot of productivity and a lot of production. So any time you can have that kind of production then he's in the right spot.”