TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State still is more than two weeks away from its season opener, but the way coach Todd Graham sees it the road to a successful season starts near Payson, Ariz., at Camp Tontozona, the Sun Devils’ mountain training ground.
"It’s a rite of passage as a Sun Devil," Graham said. "There’s never been a team (here) go to a Rose Bowl, there’s never been a team that won a championship that didn’t go to Camp T."
ASU makes its third trip to Camp Tontozona since Graham helped revive the tradition, and the coach sees the trip as a crucial team-building period for a young, largely inexperienced roster.
"We talked about the importance of Camp Tontozona and coming together as a family," Graham said after Tuesday’s practice, the last in Tempe until Monday. "This is the closest team I think we’ve had since we’ve been here, and I think that’s saying a lot because the teams we’ve had have been very close.
"We talked to them about how important it is to take that to a different level as we go up the road to Payson and Camp T."
"This is where it all starts," former ASU cornerback (1972-75) and pro football hall of famer Mike Haynes said at Tontozona last year. "When you come out of the Valley here, you’re ready to get it on."
ASU first trained at Camp Tontozona in 1960 under Kush, who will address the team Friday. The tradition was discontinued under Dennis Erickson in 2008 with the completion of the team’s indoor practice facility in Tempe but revived in 2012, Graham’s first season.
As valuable as the practice time may be — ASU has three practices and an intrasquad scrimmage scheduled at Camp Tontozona — Graham puts the emphasis on team bonding. Be it a hike up the famed "Mount Kush," named for legendary ASU coach Frank Kush, or a jump off "Tillman Rock," an homage to the late Pat Tillman, Graham wants his players to get closer during the trip.
That mission is especially important this season as ASU replaces 14 starters and prepares newcomers to contribute. Between freshmen and junior college transfers, ASU could have 10 or more first-year Sun Devils contributing this season. Cohesion will be key, as will mental maturity.
"There’s such a vast difference between the 18-year-old newcomers that we have, the junior college transfers that are newcomers and the veterans we have coming back," Graham said. "We need a lot of theses young newcomers to be at least in the two deep (depth chart) for us to be successful."
Added senior quarterback Taylor Kelly: "I’m going to have some defensive rookies on my team, so we’re going to have bond and learn how each other work. That’s going to help us come together as a team."
Still, ASU must also work toward solidifying a depth chart. A few key battles for starting jobs remain open, and many second team spots are still up for grabs. ASU scrimmaged some Tuesday morning for evaluation, and the three practices at Tontozona should help clear things up more.
When the Sun Devils return to Tempe, they will have five practices left before they begin their game week preparations for the Aug. 28 opener against Weber State.
‘NECK AND NECK’
Will linebacker remains one of the most unsettled position battles, as redshirt sophomore Carlos Mendoza and freshman D.J. Calhoun compete for the starting job. On Monday night, Graham raved about Mendoza.
"Carlos Mendoza had the best practice he’s had since he’s been here," Graham said. "Absolutely phenomenal practice. I think his light went on."
Still, asked if Mendoza was the leader at will, Graham said the competition remains about even.
"I think it’s pretty neck and neck with him and D.J.," Graham said. "D.J.’s really doing well too. His deal is just learning what he’s doing. He is really a good football player."
Graham said Monday night’s practice nearly saw a "knock-down, drag-out skirmish," though he didn’t say who was involved. He said he liked the competitiveness the incident displayed and that senior offensive lineman Jamil Douglas "took charge" of the situation, which didn’t sound like it amounted to much. Douglas likely will be considered for one of this year’s team captains, along with Kelly.
— Junior defensive tackle Jaxon Hood, absent all of camp so far dealing with "personal issues," did not join the team for Tuesday morning’s practice but was expected to make the trip to Camp Tontozona. Hood, the defense’s most experienced starter, won’t be able to do much on the field, however, as he must still go through the NCAA-mandated five-day acclimatization period before practicing in pads.
— Freshman running back Demario Richard shed the green non-contact jersey for Monday night’s practice after being limited for four practices. In green Tuesday morning were redshirt freshman safety Marcus Ball, freshman tight end Brendan Landman, junior running back D.J. Foster and freshman offensive lineman Sam Jones.
— ASU is still waiting on a few players. Freshman linebacker Ismael Murphy-Richardson, freshman defensive tackle Emanuel Dayries and junior college running back De’Chavon Hayes are all awaiting academic clearance. Graduate student transfer Ruben Ibarra, a linebacker from Purdue, has yet to report as well.