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Team bonding the focus as ASU returns to Camp Tontozona

TEMPE – A five-star hotel, head coach Todd Graham joked, is not awaiting his players as they make their way north to Camp Tontozona.

“It’s going to be rustic up in the mountains,” he said Monday following the team’s final practice in the Valley.

The Sun Devils will spend the rest of the week just outside of Payson, hoping to escape the August heat.

“I can’t wait. I’m excited,” senior safety Alden Darby said. “I wish we went for two weeks, but unfortunately we couldn’t. I’m excited. I’m ready to go.”

It’s the second straight year Graham has loaded his staff and players onto buses and made the nearly two-hour trip to practice amid the pines.

“I can’t wait to go,” he said.

Graham thoroughly enjoyed the experience during his first year on the job and felt compelled to keep the tradition—started long ago by Frank Kush, going, with one minor tweak: The Sun Devils are not scheduled to practice twice-a-day.

“We have a lot of newcomers and a lot of really quality freshmen. You’re going to have that every year, but this year a whole bunch of those guys factor into our two-deep,” Graham said. “Right now, we’re in camp and I hear, ‘Hey, No. 17, you’re supposed to do this.’ We really need to kind of learn each other’s names and get to know each other.”

It’s why he and Tim Cassidy, senior associate athletic director of football, have set aside time for activities away from the field to help with team bonding.

Players will climb Mount Kush, jump in the nearby creek like Pat Tillman, maybe even play some wiffle ball; and then very night, Cassidy said, players will sit around a camp fire and “kind of share their feelings about their life and some of their goals and aspirations as a young man, not only as a student-athlete here but beyond that point in time.”

Cassidy added they plan to mix the groups, i.e. defensive linemen with the quarterbacks or the offensive linemen with the wide receivers “so that they can become a little bit closer as a team.”

Practice will be held each morning with a walk-through possibly in the afternoon.

Graham though is keenly aware of when to push and when to back off his players.

“It’s keeping them mentally motivated because it gets to be a wear on you,” he said. “But I want have time to really develop as a team; and obviously, we will—from early in the morning to late at night, be working on football. It’s just what kind of things on football.”

Said Cassidy, “We’ll have plenty of practice, don’t worry about that. We think the team building portion and just being together is as important as anything else we do.”

According to Graham, it’s the number-one priority of the week.

“We’re coming in there and coming out there as a team. That’s the key,” he said.