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From hilltop dorms to speed of game, ASU freshmen adjusting

(Photo by Greg Macafee/Cronkite News)

CAMP TONTOZONA, Ariz. — The preseason retreat to the ponderosa pines outside of Payson is a longstanding tradition for the Arizona State football program, but for the freshmen, it is the first taste of the college football lifestyle.

It’s an adjustment.

It starts with summer workouts and practices, where newcomers experience the physical demands of football at the next level. Jobs are not necessarily on the line at that point, but competition starts to heat up once Camp Tontozona starts.

The workload as a high school football player is significantly less than what is demanded at the NCAA level, and freshman kicker Brandon Ruiz already recognizes that.

“Here it’s like a job,” Ruiz said. “You go into meetings, you go into team bonding, we have practice. It’s like 12-hour days.”

Ruiz is one of the many freshmen and newcomers that is expected to contribute this season. Many of the Devils’ key players from last season have either graduated or left the program.

The largest hole in the team is the defensive backfield. Veterans Armand Perry (medical retirement) and Kareem Orr (transfer) were expected to play a large number of defensive snaps. The Camp Tontozona roster features 18 defensive backs, 10 of them underclassmen, including seven freshmen.

Many of the highly touted secondary players have yet to play a snap of Division I football. One of those is Kobe Williams, but he is not fresh out of high school like some of his defensive brethren.

ASU coach Todd Graham has placed a high value on junior college players in his time as the head man. Eighteen players on the roster have transferred from a community college, and Williams is one of them. Williams came to Tempe after one season at Long Beach City College in California.

Playing at the NJCAA level is a step up from high school competition, but Williams has noticed a huge difference in the game at the big-time college level.

“It’s the speed,” Williams said. “Bigger, faster, stronger, everything. It’s a different thing and I’m trying to get used to it.”

The redshirt is a tool college coaches use to give players an extra year to develop without burning a year of eligibility. Defensive back Chase Lucas really used it to his advantage.

Lucas moved over to defense when he arrived at ASU last season. He had never played defense before, and he used his redshirt year to develop technique. He put in extra work with Graham and defensive backs coach T.J. Rushing to rise to the level of a Division I defensive back.

Lucas is having more fun at Camp Tontozona this time around, as he described his first go around laughingly as “terrible.” He said that he is having more fun because he is he seeing the field a lot more during practices.

That is not the only reason why he is enjoying himself more.

“I don’t stay on hilltop, so that’s the best part about it,” Lucas said.

The hilltop is a set of dorms that rest on a steep hill that overlooks the practice field. The players have to hike up and down the steep angles to get anywhere around the camp.

So what is a good description of staying on hilltop at Camp T?

“It’s like prison,” Lucas said. “It’s just bad. Everyone thinks ‘Oh, Camp Tontozona is the best’. Nah, it’s not. It’s really not.”

The yearly experience may not be as bleak as Lucas described it, and players say it helps the team bond. The freshmen are able to adjust to the team atmosphere and feel more comfortable.

The incoming freshmen go from being the oldest on their team in high school to being some of the youngest students on campus. It is a reality that has not escaped Ruiz.

“The first thing that stood out to me was just the age of everyone,” Ruiz said. “You see guys that kind of look like you and then you’re like ‘Oh, how old are you?’ and they’re like ‘21’, ‘24.’ It’s like ‘Woah, this is not what I thought. These guys have six more years experience than me.’ ”

Though the prize kicker has yet to see the field in game action, his teammates have accepted him for his work ethic. It’s something all the freshmen hope to experience.

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