by Max Foster
roundup staff reporter
Sun Devils' disciples from around the state are rejoicing at the beginning of the Arizona State University football preseason practices at Camp Tontozona.
Located 17 miles east of Payson in the cool pines, the camp provides players a fresh-air setting for concentration and preparation for the coming season. It also gives fans the opportunity to have a free, close-up look at the players as they go through their paces.
Some fans say watching an early morning Sun Devil scrimmage from a grassy knoll near cool-running Tonto Creek is more pleasurable than a top-dollar bleacher seat high atop boiling-hot Sun Devil stadium.
Traditionally, the biggest draw at Tontozona has been the camp-ending scrimmage that this year kicks off at 10:30 a.m. Aug. 18. It lasts for about two hours, after which ASU faithful gather in local waterin' holes to mull over the prospects of a win over the Wildcats and a Devil bowl berth.
In 1998, the year after the Sun Devils rode the wizardry of Jake Plummer to the Rose Bowl, the Tontozona scrimmage drew a crowd estimated at more than 10,000 fans.
The best advice for those heading to the scrimmage is to arrive early and wear comfortable shoes because it will probably be a long walk from parking spots along Highway 260 into Camp Tontozona.
Some fans opt to avoid the overflow crowds and attend the weekday practice sessions.
Under new ASU coach Dirk Koetter, two-a-days will begin Aug. 13 and continue Aug. 14. Those sessions are at 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. Aug. 15, there will be a 9 a.m. practice only. Two-a-days return Aug. 16 and 17.
Until the Thursday morning practice, when they don full gear, the players will be in shoulder pads, helmets and shorts.
The Devil's first full-pad practice is usually a fan-favorite because the intensity on the field is usually turned up a notch.
Of course, Koetter is new to the Tontozona scene and it's unknown what his camp tactics will include.
Longtime football fans fondly recall the hard-hitting Tontozona practices under Hall-of-Famer Frank Kush. He first began taking ASU teams to Tontozona in 1960 to get the players out of the searing desert heat. Under Kush, the camps quickly gained a reputation for being some of the most grueling in collegiate football.
When Kush's teams did well, much of the credit was given to the military-like discipline and camaraderie instilled during the stay at Tontozona.
Kush has more than his share of fables about how he scoured the Rim country looking for volunteers to help him build the camp into a remotely adequate practice site.
There have been a few coaches who have downplayed the significance of Tontozona, saying the rustic facilities and remote location were not conducive to molding a football team.
In the late '80s, Rim country skies were pouring down rain when coach Larry Marmie arrived with his team. Eyeing the wet field, the coaches ordered the players back to Tempe where they holed up in a pricey hotel for practice sessions on the ASU campus.
At Tontozona, the 42-year-old Koetter will have a solid nucleus of 50 letter winners remaining from the tenure of former coach Bruce Snyder.
Among the contingent of veterans are eight returning starters on offense and eight on defense. Needless to say, Snyder did not leave the Sun Devil cupboard bare.
Among the fan favorites at camp could be Willie Daniel, Kurt Wallin and Eric Fields on defense.
Daniel, of Phoenix St. Mary's High School, was a popular draw among teenagers two years ago at the Copper State Jam youth basketball tournament held at the Tonto Apache gymnasium.
Some of the most popular Sun Devil offensive players include Scott Peters, Devlon Flowers and Levi Jones.
During visits to the camp, fans will want to keep on eye on the race for starting quarterback honors that will surely heat up Tontozona.
Scottsdale Horizon product Jeff Krohn started much of last season, but was sporadic and often injured.
This year, he'll battle Matt Cooper and Andrew Walker for starting signal caller honors.
Cooper, a 6-foot, 5-inch, 240-pound letter winner uncorked a touchdown pass at last year's Aloha Bowl and is a strong candidate to take over at QB.
Walker, a former high school All-American, is also in the mix after red-shirting last season.
Another position of fan interest will be tailback, which is being billed as the Sun Devil's deepest position.
Tom Pace, Devlon Flowers and Mike Williams are all talented runners who could be among the best in the Pac-10.
As a walk-on last year, Pace eventually earned a scholarship and went on to lead the Sun Devil rushing attack with 720 yards in 180 carriers.
A freshman, Williams was pressed into duty after injuries sidelined several other running backs. He started three games before being replaced by Pace.
Flowers is probably the most acclaimed of the trio but is battling back from a torn ACL that sidelined him all last season.
To help identify players, ASU staffers usually provide team rosters that include practice jersey numbers.
Following the team's camp stay, Koetter's Sun Devils return to Tempe to prepare for the season home-opener at 7 p.m. Sept. 8 against San Diego State.