Is Camp Tontozona the prelude to ASU’s perfect storm?

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                </div>It’s little more than two weeks now before the Arizona State football players pack their bags for Camp Tontozona. But this year the trip will be filled with more optimism […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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It’s little more than two weeks now before the Arizona State football players pack their bags for Camp Tontozona. But this year the trip will be filled with more optimism than usual.

The Sun Devils are coming off an eight-win season, the first winning campaign in five years, and capped the regular season off by beating rival Arizona and then winning their first bowl game in seven years.  It’s no wonder that renewals for season-ticket sales are way up as last month ended with more than 90 percent of last year’s season ticket holders reserving their seats for the 2013 season.

And yesterday ASU got the news that the Sun Devils have been picked in the conference’s pre-season media poll to finish second in the Pac-12 South Division behind UCLA this season – right behind the Bruins, who won the South last season.  UCLA pulled 12 first-place votes, while ASU picked up 10.  The only other school getting any first-place votes was USC with four.

Camp Tontozona was the brain child of legendary ASU coach, Frank Kush, who picked the spot back in 1960 on 36 acres of towering pine trees just east of Payson to isolate his team from the distractions down in the Valley and concentrate on the business of football. Dennis Erickson brought his teams back down to the ASU campus during his five years in charge of the program, erecting an air-conditioned practice facility to deal with the 100-degree temperatures. But when Todd Graham was hired last year he renewed the tradition.

The team will practice there from Aug. 12 through Aug. 17, concluding with the annual scrimmage, which draws large crowds from Payson and the surrounding area and also becomes a destination for fans down in the Valley.

Expectations are high for the football program this coming season and Graham will be under considerable pressure to match or exceed the team’s 8-5 success last year.  The ability to set up camp in the cool high country and concentrate on nothing but football for six days could be a big boost to his preparation for the Sept. 5 season opener.

It certainly seemed to work for Kush, who made the trip to Tontozona for 22 years and during that time enjoyed a 176-54-1 record and a couple of trips to the Rose Bowl.  Kush’s troops usually spent 11 days grinding it out among the towering trees and bubbling springs, but six will have to suffice for Graham.

The selection of the Sun Devils to finish second in the South doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all that likely to end up that way at the end of November.  According to the stats released by the ASU athletic department, the media poll has correctly picked the winner little more than half the time, 28 correct picks out of 52 to be exact.  However, the media types have been correct 11 out of the last 13 tries.

This year, more than most, the race to the division crowns is pretty wide open.  Even Oregon doesn’t appear to be a sure thing to win the North division after losing its head coach, Chip Kelly, to the NFL after last season.  They are picked to win the division again, but Stanford isn’t far behind in the polling, picking up 11 first-place votes to Oregon’s 15.

And ASU is in a good place to take advantage of the wide-open opportunity.  The Devils return the key components of an offense that averaged 205.5 yards rushing last season – the second-best mark in the past 25 years – and an aggressive style of defense that led the nation in tackles-for-loss with nine per game.

Quarterback Taylor Kelly is a redshirt junior coming off a season in which he set a new school record with a 67.1 completion percentage and will have with him star running back Marion Grice who racked up 19 TDs last year and is third on ASU’s all-time single-season touchdown list, and tight end Chris Coyle, who also set a school record with most receptions by a tight end in a single season with 57.

They will be joined on the other side of the ball by Will Sutton, the consensus All-American defensive lineman that was last year’s Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.  Sutton will also bring the leadership that comes with being a redshirt senior.

There is talent and depth this year, and Graham is fully aware of the potential that comes with that.  “This is the best football team I have coached,” he admitted during the Pac-12 media day this week.  That simple statement puts the responsibility for the success of the 2013 season squarely on the shoulders of the head coach.

So the clean, fresh smell of pine that envelopes Tontozona will be mixed this year with the smell of unbridled optimism – and hope that Graham finds a way to pull it all together in a season that might best be described as ‘the perfect storm.’

(Photo: ASU Athletics)