The annual trek to the green mountains of Payson, Ariz. is such a great way to set up the stage for a new season.
The Sun Devils are visiting the iconic venue of Camp Tontozona for the fifth straight year under Todd Graham's command. ASU's head football coach has not been shy to admit that travelling to the altitudes of the Tonto National Forest is one of his favorite traditions, inherited from legendary head coach Frank Kush.
"I've stated many times that I love the traditions of college football," says Graham. "Camp Tontozona for ASU is one of those iconic traditions. I want to take my teams to Camp T because that is where the tradition and the season begins. Coach Frank Kush had a vision and it worked out very well. I want to perpetuate that tradition."
The one-week camp takes another turn this year as Camp T starts preseason activities and therefore, long-awaited position battles.
Early trends for the 2016 football season will emerge through the pines of Camp T, culminating with the annual final practice on Saturday, August 6. What is the quarterbacks hierarchy at this point? How the secondary is going to get sorted out? Who will earn the starter spots on the offensive line?
You know, a new quarterback, maybe.
Except if you recently found a new home under a rock, you might be aware that ASU is looking for a new starting quarterback to replace Mike Bercovici. And the four-headed competition between Manny Wilkins, Bryce Perkins, Brady White and Dillon Sterling-Cole is going to be fierce.
Each of the four QBs will have a chance to prove himself, and the quest to impress Todd Graham and Chip Lindsey really begins in Payson. Wilkins, Perkins and White were all "even" at the end of spring practices. Expect the race to heat up in Camp T with the addition of Sterling-Cole.
"The number one factor going into who will quarterback our team, will be the guy who can activate the others on the team and lead them," comments Graham as he prepares to open Camp T.
Four new starters to come up with on the offensive line.
Finding the five contributors is one task, getting them to their best spot on the line is another. The coaching staff will have to choose from many options to assemble this squad, and even more importantly, to find the right chemistry. The potential starters actually have no experience of playing together whatsoever.
The only returning starter Evan Goodman and Quinn Bailey seem to be locked at both tackle spots, which is a good thing, but the interior line is up for grabs. Camp T will serve as a first step towards a solution.
Is Stephon McCray going to play at center, guard or both? Keep in mind the presence of JUCO transfer A.J. McCollum, who could likely be factored in the competition at center. Is sophomore Sam Jones strong enough to hold the emergence of redshirt freshmen Zach Robertson and Steven Miller at the guard spots?
"Getting our guys in the right positions is really critical to us, and the offensive line and the secondary will have the most newcomers. We feel good about the guys we have, we just need to get them in the right spots"
Retooling the secondary.
If you watched the Sun Devils consistently last year and didn't erase from your memory the dark times this team went through, you might remember the dreadful performances of the secondary. Three of the four main faces have to be replaced (which could be a blessing in disguise) while the lone returning starter, Kareem Orr, is moving from safety to corner in order to plug the holes opened by graduation.
Former linebacker Laiu Moeakiola is also moving, from the middle of the field to the free safety position. These two players are relatively experienced within the team but a change of position always brings a period of transition. New duties, new technique, etc. Camp T will tell us right away if both spent a studious summer.
But the major question of the secondary concerns one of the cornerback spot, which is going to be filled by a JUCO transfer. Maurice Chandler or J'Marcus Rhodes will battle for the position opposite Kareem Orr, and it will likely end up as one of the hottest battles of Camp T.
Beware of the Valley product Chase Lucas, too, who could be hungry to steal playing time as a talented freshman.
In search of leadership figures.
Last year's team leaders are no longer with the Sun Devils. Gone are Mike Bercovici, D.J. Foster and Jordan Simone.
Every team needs men to trust and follow through the twists and turns of a season. This is an underrated part of a roster and Camp T provides the perfect atmosphere for players to step up. They get out of their Tempe cocoon to focus exclusively around football. Rudimentary facilities, no electronics, mountains and pines.
No one has spent more time on the ASU football team than Laiu Moeakiola, Salamo Fiso or Stephon McCray. They could likely become vital parts of the Sun Devils off the field with their play on the field. Moeakiola even talked to the team and then broke the rock to close summer workouts, which tells a lot about his influence.
"Different people lead in different ways," talks Graham about leadership. "Some of our leaders on our team like Laiu (Moeakiola) are guys that are naturally quiet. The personality of our team is a little less external. Our guys will be genuinely who they are. Our goals are pretty much written on the wall. Our goals are what they are and it doesn't bother me that our guys aren't out there writing letters."
Newcomers to watch closely?
Camp T is the beginning of a new season. Everybody has finally arrived among the football team, with freshmen and transfers diving for the first time into the competition. Some of them could gain a lot of attention within the first practices up there.
N'Keal Harry, the 5-star freshman wide receiver from Chandler, Ariz., has a strong chance of earning playing time right away. There are lots of emerging playmakers among the receivers, from junior Cameron Smith to sophomore Jalen Harvey, but the hype and talent surrounding the Valley star recruit cannot be matched.
On the other side of the ball, keep an eye on JUCO transfer Dougladson Subtyl. He is a beast, literally, a beast (6-4, 245). The DEVIL position on the D-line could very likely be his if he starts making strides and destroying worlds in Payson.