Will Fans Return To Tontozona?


Looking to improve on last year's dismal 4-7 record, Arizona State University second-year coach Dirk Koetter will soon bring his Sun Devil football team to Camp Tontozona.

But do the fans care?

During the glory days of legendary coach Frank Kush (1958 to 1979) and in the ASU's Rose Bowl years (1987 and 1997), Camp Tontozona practices drew throngs of Devils disciples eager to get a preseason glimpse of the team.

In 1996, when the Devils sported "Jake the Snake" Plummer at quarterback and were about to embark on a mission that would take them to the Rose Bowl, a crowd estimated at more than 8,000 fans showed up at Tontozona.

Crowds almost as large overflowed the mountain camp when former coaches Darryl Rogers, John Cooper and Bruce Snyder had the Devils knocking on the door of national respectability.

Under Koetter, however, ASU has fallen on hard times and interest in the team has waned. Koetter made no friends among the legions of Sun Devil faithful in last season's 34-21 loss to Arizona.

Evidence of that apathy surfaced when a fans' trip to Lincoln for ASU's season opener on Aug. 24 against Nebraska had to be canceled for lack of participation.

Only time will tell if fans will travel to Tontozona in droves as they've done in past seasons.

The schedule

The team's traditional preseason stay at the camp located 17 miles northeast of Payson is slated to begin with a practice session at 4 p.m. Aug. 6. The team will depart the ASU campus in Tempe at 11:30 a.m. that day.

Aug. 7, 8, 9, 10, 12 and 13, the Devils are slated to conduct two-a-day practice sessions. Although the ASU staff has not set the exact start times, traditionally they begin about 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., and last about two hours.

During the practices Aug. 7 and 8, the team will be in shoulder pads and helmets only. In football jargon, it's called "half-pads."

At the Aug. 9 session, players will don full pads for hard-hitting action.

The team's annual fans scrimmage is slated for 10 a.m. Aug. 11 on the Tontozona playing field. At 2 p.m. that day, the team will take the plunge at Taylor Pool.

Since the Devils open the season early, against Nebraska in the BCA Classic, the team's stay at Tontozona will be crucial to any hopes the Devils have of playing on even terms with the powerful Cornhuskers.

At Tontozona, knowledgeable Devils fans will probably be most interested in Koetter's unusual 4-2-5 defense that last season gave up touchdowns in record numbers. The lack of a solid defense resulted in the Devils finishing with the school's worst PAC-10 record, 1-7, since ASU joined the conference in 1978.

The players

Fans who attend Tontozona with hopes of getting an early glimpse of future NFL stars might want to eyeball defensive eye Terrell Suggs. The 6-foot-3-inch, 242-pound Suggs is lightening quick and as close to a superstar as the Sun Devils have.

As a freshman two years ago, he started 10 games.

Last year, Suggs was the target of double and triple team blocks from opponents.

While most fans might be watching Suggs, you can wager your season tickets that pass-happy Koetter (30-17 in his career) will be scouring the quarterback ranks trying to find a strong-armed signal caller to pull the trigger on his high-octane offense.

Last year's starter, the often-injured Jeff Krohn who finished the 2001 season as the NCAA's No. 9 passer apparently grew disgruntled with Koetter and decided to transfer to Massachusetts.

In spring ball, sophomore Andrew Walter struggled, but has an NFL-type arm and could make him ASU's quarterback of the future.

Other contenders for starting honors include freshman Chad Christensen and junior college transfer Sandy Goodenough.

Sun Devil fans at Camp Tontozona, especially those who have been visiting there since Kush first took the team to the mountain retreat in 1960, might experience a bit of deja vu when they watch freshman running back Hakim Hill show his gridiron skills.

His father, J.D. Hill, was a star wide receiver for ASU from 1967 to 1970 and was recently enshrined in the school's sports hall of fame.

In 1970 at the pinnacle of his ASU career, he was voted a Sporting News, Time and Associated Press All-American.

After leaving ASU, J.D. went on to a successful pro career with the Buffalo Bills.

If Hakim is to follow in his father's footsteps and become a Devil star, he'll have to beat out junior Mike Williams for starting running back honors.

In 2000, Williams rushed for 514 yards and had four starts last year, but only rushed for 188 yards.

If Williams shines at Tontozona, he could become the Sun Devils full-time starter at running back.

Getting there

To get to Camp Tontozona, follow Highway 260 to Kohl's Ranch.

After crossing the Tonto Creek Bridge, the turn into Camp Tontozona is one mile past the fire station turnoff on the right side of the road. A private parking lot is about 300 yards from the gate.

A word of warning for those attending the fan's scrimmage: wear comfortable walking shoes. Since parking is limited at Tontozona, fans sometimes must park alongside Highway 260 and hike more than a mile to the playing field.

Once there, fans will be exposed to some of the most breathtaking sites in Arizona.

Mountains, one nicknamed Mount Kush, skirt the camp where cool, clear water runs through Tonto Creek just a short walk from the meticulously groomed playing field. The springs in the creek provide natural whirlpools where players gather to cool off after practice sessions.

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