Arizona State’s football team doesn’t battle its first opponent until the season opener at home against Kent State on Aug. 29.
But plenty of battles will take place in the 23 days leading up to the kickoff against the Golden Flashes as players fight to win starting positions.
And Rim Country residents have a golden opportunity to get an up-close view of those battles this week as the team returns for five days of practice at Camp Tontozona for the first time since 2017.
Second-year Sun Devils head coach Herm Edwards gets his first weeklong experience at the camp, located about 15 miles east of Payson on State Route 260. The team’s annual stay at Camp Tontozona was canceled last year when the new artificial turf field couldn’t be installed in time. That field is now installed and will enable the Sun Devils to continue to practice at the camp even when it rains.
Rain has been a worry for ASU at Camp T throughout its visits as the monsoon rains often drench the area this time of year.
In past years, the Sun Devils were forced to move several practices from Camp T, which had always had a grass field, to the artificial surface at Rumsey Park’s south multipurpose field. That was a big logistical headache for everyone.
The team began practicing at Camp T in 1959 under late Hall of Fame Coach Frank Kush, who is credited with turning the roughshod retreat in Tonto National Forest into a football camp. He continued to visit Camp T during the Sun Devils’ trips there, making his last appearance there in 2015. He spoke to the team after the final practice and players carried him off the field to the delight of the several thousand spectators.
Kush died on June 22, 2017.
The Sun Devils didn’t make the trip from 2008-11 under Dennis Erickson, who preferred to stay in Tempe.
But Todd Graham brought the team back to Camp T when he took over in 2012.
The final day of practice at Camp T has routinely featured an informal intrasquad Maroon and Gold Scrimmage, which attracts a few thousand fans. The final practice at the camp was canceled in 2016 because of rain and a wet and muddy grass field.
Last year was the first time since 2011 that the Sun Devils didn’t spend three to six days at Camp T.
The Sun Devils opened practice last week with many questions. One of the biggest is who emerges from the battle to replace three-year starter Manny Wilkins as the starting quarterback. Junior Dillon Sterling-Cole and three freshmen — Jayden Daniels, Ethan Long and Joey Yellen — are all hoping to win the job.
The team was scheduled to arrive at Camp Tontozona on Monday. The Sun Devils will hold practices from 10 a.m. to noon Tuesday through Saturday. All practices are open to the public at no charge.
Few people attend the weekday practices. However, the final practice on Saturday annually attracts huge crowds.
Parking is an issue on Saturday. Both eastbound lanes of AZ 87 will be closed near the turnoff for Camp T beginning Saturday morning and until traffic has cleared on Saturday afternoon. People can park on the sides of that stretch of road. Golf cart service provides rides to the field area for those unable to walk from their cars, although wait times could be significant. The earlier you arrive, the closer you can park and the shorter distance you’ll have to walk.
The Sun Devils traditionally had visited Camp T in one of the final weeks of practice after summer classes ended and with the start of the season nearing. However, Graham began bringing his teams up here in early August in 2016 and 2017 when an internet booster was added, allowing players enrolled in summer classes to do their classwork online.
The trip to Camp T is meant to be a team-building experience for the Sun Devils without the constant distraction of cell phones, other electronics and girls.
The annual Sun Devil Pep Rally held at Green Valley Park every Friday night during ASU’s Camp T visit won’t take place this year.
“It was a neat event, but was very time consuming and costly for the town to put on, as well as time constraining for ASU,” said Payson Parks, Recreation & Tourism Director Courtney Spawn.
She said it’s possible the event could return in the future.
The event was held from 2015-17 but not last year since the team didn’t make the trip up here because of the delay in installing the new field.
It featured presentations by the Sun Devil Spirit Squad, an appearance by Sun Devils mascot Sparky, football competitions and games, a football obstacle course, ASU alumni autographs, motivational speakers, food vendors, as well as live music.
Three years ago, Graham said he envisioned a longer annual stay for the Sun Devils with more work on Camp T if they got an artificial playing field, among other things.
“If we could improve that place, maybe put in a turf field, and improve the accommodations where our guys could fit in the showers, stuff like that ... I would love to report to Camp T and to be there for two weeks,” Graham said in 2016. “What I’m saying is, you don’t have the distractions. But it’s impossible for us to do that right now from an accommodations standpoint.”
Well, the field has been installed, so that’s no longer an issue. But Graham is no longer running the show. So we’ll have to see if Edwards warms to the idea of a longer stay on future visits.
Contact the reporter at email@example.com