It’s not the grueling practices, isolation, Spartan facilities, missing girlfriends or lack of cell phone service that renders stays at Camp Tontozona uncomfortable for some Sun Devil football players.
Rather it’s bugs.
The players, most of who whom hail from big cities and are foreigners to rural life, told the media last week that the insects that can be found on Tontozona grounds are creepy, ugly and unnerving. While it’s doubtful any of the athletes suffer from arachnophobia, Tontozona’s forested country setting is a perfect place for insects to flourish.
Fortunately, very few are poisonous and most are harmless.
But this story is about football, so back to the Tontozona gridiron.
The ASU team arrived at Tontozona yesterday, Aug. 12, and will continue to practice there until Aug. 17 when the annual fans’ scrimmage will wrap up the stay.
Practices for Camp Tontozona are:
Tuesday, Aug. 13 – Practice 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. (pads)
Wednesday, Aug. 14 – Practice 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. (pads)
Thursday, Aug. 15 – Practice 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. (pads)
Friday, Aug. 16 – Practice 8:30 a.m. to 11 a.m. (pads)
Saturday, Aug. 17 – Scrimmage 10 a.m. (return to Tempe following)
For the scrimmage, Sun Devil players will actually take the field about 9:30 a.m. giving fans an opportunity for an up-close and personal look at the players, some of whom in future years will undoubtedly be playing in the NFL.
Most stays at Tontozona have traditionally included some two-a-day practices. But last week, coach Todd Graham said he was backing off on those sessions to help preserve the Tontozona practice fields.
Apparently practicing twice a day last summer damaged the field.
Due to a lack of parking on SR 260 and at Camp Tontozona, ASU officials — who are expecting big crowds all week — are asking fans to carpool and allow extra driving time.
Since parking will be allowed on only one side of the road leading into Camp Tontozona, traditionally the east side, attendants will direct visitors to the correct side.
Once Camp T road parking is full, visitors will be directed to overflow parking inside an SR 260 construction zone.
Shuttle vans will be provided for the elderly and guests who may need assistance.
Since ASU first began practicing at Camp Tontozona in 1960, fans have had a special place in their hearts for the retreat.
And it’s not just about football.
Ponderosa pine-covered mountains surround the camp, contributing to the sheer beauty of the pristine valley with clear-running Tonto Creek just steps away from the practice field.
Just yards west of the field, a bubbling spring is a popular attraction especially to flatlanders and desert dwellers that are unaccustomed to seeing clear water flowing from the ground rather than from a plastic bottle purchased at a convenience store.
At nearby Tonto Creek, waterfalls and swimming holes have over the years become popular cooling off respites for ASU players.
Also while visiting Tontozona, it’s not unusual to spot wildlife including deer, squirrels, skunks and sometimes bears.
While Tontozona is surely a nature lovers’ delight, the business at hand is putting together a formidable football team reminiscent of those Frank Kush molded at Camp T during his 22 years as ASU’s head coach.
This year, the Devils are picked to finish second in the Pac-12 south behind UCLA, but there are those who contend the team has the talent to win the overall conference title and earn a ducat to the Rose Bowl.
But before there can be any thoughts of roses, second-year coach Todd Graham has some problems to address including finding adequate wide receivers to take the pressure off the running backs and tight ends who last year were the primary receivers in the Devils’ passing “O.”
Also, Graham must find a starting kicker who can toe the winning field goal in the waning moments of a big game.
In 2012, every time ASU lined up for a field goal, fans closed their eyes and prayed.
Molding a rock-solid ASU run defense is another to-do on the head coach’s list of things to accomplish at Tontozona.
Last season, the Devils excelled in passing defense, but on the ground allowed 182.9 yards per game, which ranked 10th in the Pac-12 and 81st national.
With Notre Dame, Stanford and Wisconsin on Arizona State’s 2013 schedule, the run defense must improve dramatically if the Devils are to smell roses.
In an effort to address the shortage of top-notch wide receivers, ASU coaches recruited several in the offseason including junior college transfer Jaelen Strong, who is expected to have a breakout season.
As for a kicker, Alex Garoutte returns, but last year made only two field goals between 30 and 39 yards.
Freshman Zane Gonzalez could solve ASU problems at the position, but Garoutte is said to be much improved over last year.
ASU’s defense will be anchored again by Will Sutton, who is one of the finest D-linemen in the country.
But, Graham must find a replacement for linebacker Brandon McGee who has graduated. His spot could be filled by hard-nosed Chris Young. Coaches are also asking him to help fill the leadership role lost when McGee graduated.
While watching Graham at Camp Tontozona last season it became obvious he had a special affinity for the defense, spending much of his time “coaching-up” the defenders.
This season, if ASU is to advance to Pasadena, Graham and his staff must devise schemes and strategies that will turn the run defense into one as formidable as the passing “D” is expected to be.