Scenic Sneak Peek

Preseason training camp returns to Rim Country

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Among the perks of living in the Rim Country are opportunities for free, sneak peeks of a PAC-10 football team during preseason training camp.

That team, the Arizona State University Sun Devils, have tuned up since 1958 during two-week stays at Camp Tontozona, located east of Payson.

While fans have flocked to the camp to see legendary coaches like Frank Kush and John Cooper, there have been some ASU coaches who have attracted little local attention, mostly because they struggled at the helm of the program.

Such was the case with former coach Dirk Koetter, who was replaced last spring by well-traveled Dennis Erickson.

With Erickson now the head coach, fans who travel Aug. 8 through Aug. 15 to Tontozona for the 2007 camp, will have the opportunity for an up-close-and-personal look at one of the most recognized coaches in the country.

Erickson, in his eighth head-coaching job since 1982, has coached Wyoming, Washington State, Oregon State, Miami, Idaho, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.

Fans who attended the 2001 Fiesta Bowl in Tempe watched Erickson's Oregon State team route Notre Dame, 41-9, to finish 11-1 and No. 4 in the nation.

At Oregon State and Miami, Erickson's teams developed a reputation for a rock ‘em, sock ‘em style of play. The new ASU coach's approach to the game has hard-core Sun Devils fans hoping he might be the man to finally lead the Devils to the gridiron promised land.

For the past six seasons under Koetter, the Devils frustrated almost all their fans by finishing 2-19 against ranked opponents.

Conversely, Erickson has won two national championships and 148 games -- 11th among active D-1 coaches in his career.

The players

At Tontozona, fans will also have the opportunity to see three seniors in action -- Ryan Torain, Josh Barett and Jonathan Johnson, recently named to the Rivals.com All-Reliable team.

Last season, Torain rushed for 1,229 yards on 223 carries (5.5 yds avg) and seven TDs.

He was the first Sun Devil to surpass 1,000 rushing yards since 2001.

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New Arizona State University football coach Dennis Erickson, in his eighth head-coaching job since 1982, has served stints at Wyoming, Washington State, Oregon State, Miami, Idaho, the San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks.

Barrett, a defensive back, earned PAC-10 All-Conference honorable mention honors.

The first thing visitors to Tontozona might notice about Barrett is his size. At 6-foot, 3-inches and 230-plus pounds, he more resembles a linebacker than a D-back.

Johnson, the Devil's starting punter, averaged 41.5 yards on 54 punts without suffering a blocked attempt.

He also forced fair coaches or dropped punts inside the opponent's 20-yard line on 39 percent of his kicks.

The legend of the camp

Arizona State University's scenic mountain retreat is nestled in the ponderosa pines 17 miles east of Payson, near Kohl's Ranch. It has been touted by sports officials as one of the most unique university football training camps in the country.

Its lush, expertly groomed football field lies in a scenic basin, surrounded by towering mountains.

On the camp property, a bubbling spring forms a natural whirlpool. Tonto Creek is just a few minutes walk away.

The name, Camp Tontozona -- combining nearby Tonto Creek and Arizona -- was chosen in 1958 after legendary ASU football coach Frank Kush began using the camp for preseason training.

ASU acquired the property seven years before Kush began using it as a football-training site, when the Arizona Board of Regents deeded it to Arizona State College at Tempe, now ASU.

Kush spearheaded the move to turn the retreat into a camp, where his team could prepare for the rigors of the coming season.

Kush said he got the idea for the camp from his high school days in Pennsylvania. His prep team often retreated from the friendly confines of his hometown to train at a remote campsite, formerly used by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The former Sun Devil coach often said that Tontozona was an ideal training ground because it provided a site where players could focus on football, far away from the distractions of the Tempe campus.

Longtime visitors to the camp will remember a nearby mountain, once dubbed Mt. Kush, by ASU football players.

Players who erred during practice sessions were forced to undertake the grueling climb from the camp to the top of Mt. Kush. The rigors of the camp were often too much to endure for some players. Under Kush, athletes who threw in the towel had to ring a bell in mid-camp to get a ride back to Tempe.

That was too humiliating for some, so they hitchhiked to Payson and south on the Beeline back to the ASU campus.

One of Erickson's assistants, Dan Cozetto, who is returning to coach at ASU, said, "I'm looking forward to going up there (to Tontozona). I want to look at that big hill they say all those guys ran up and down, just so I don't have to run up it."

In 2007

Although the practice schedules for Tontozona have not been finalized, the highly popular camp-ending fans' scrimmage will be conducted 9 to 11 a.m. Aug. 11.

That shoot-out usually attracts throngs of fans from the Valley eager for an early peek at the Sun Devil football team.

NCAA regulations restrict the number of preseason practices that may be held, but the Devils have traditionally undergone two-a-day sessions about 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on alternating days.

All sessions are open to the public, free of charge.

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