Hundreds of cars lined up along Highway 260 outside of Payson just hours after the sun rose Saturday morning. Thousands of fans piled out of those cars, trucks and SUV's and hiked down the hill to Camp Tontozona, donning maroon and gold, eager to get the first glimpse of their 2015 Sun Devils.
This is the fourth consecutive year that Todd Graham has led his Sun Devils north for five days, living in wooden cabins, eatin meals together and practicing within the pines of Northern Arizona.
The 2015 edition of Camp Tontozona had a singular theme: Physicality. This looks like Todd Graham's largest, strongest and most physical football team at Arizona State. On Saturday morning, they showed it in their annual Camp T scrimmage.
"What a great day, I will tell you, that is the most people I have seen in here," said Graham. "We have had a very, very physical 12 days (of practice). We are right where we need to be."
Players began taking the field around 9:30 a.m., first the specialists, then the defensive line and the rest of the team. The scrimmage began at 10 a.m. sharp and concluded around 12:30 p.m. Following the football activities, players signed autographs for fans. Here is what stood out.
(Kalen Ballage (maroon) runs through two ASU defenders during Saturday's scrimmage. Photo Ryan Bafaloukos)
One of the most intriguing battles in fall camp is the competition for the No. 2 quarterback job. Redshirt freshman Manny Wilkins and true freshman Brady White and Bryce Perkins are battling to be Mike Bercovici's backup for the 2015 season.
Although Wilkins was listed as the No. 2 quarterback in the team's first fall depth chart, it was Bryce Perkins taking the first reps with the second team on Saturday (although all three quarterbacks rotated with the second team). Perkins went 5-14 for just five yards (after taking into account negative plays) with an interception and a long pass of 21 yards.
Brady White also completed five passes but for 98 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions. Wilkins went 3-8 for ten yards, also rushing for 53 yards with a fumble lost.
(Bryce Perkins (left) hands off to freshman running back Nick Ralston during Saturday's scrimmage. Photo by Ryan Bafaloukos)
"They looked like young quarterbacks," said Deputy Head Coach Mike Norvell about his freshman quarterbacks. "This was a great learning experience for them. It was the first time we had them with a crowd.
"This is my favorite day in the fall, because I can try to create adversity, I can try to create excitement but when you have a crowd with this many thousands of people sitting on the mountainside, it creates a game-like atmosphere. There are some mistakes that we have to correct. I think you see a lot of athleticism with those guys, they made a lot of really good decisions but then there are some situational things that we have to improve our awareness on."
Bercovici took all of the first team reps on Saturday, going 10-17 for 151 yards and an interception. The pick came off a ball tipped at the line of scrimmage and following the turnover, Bercovici completed seven straight passes. Despite his action on the field, the ASU signal caller was also keeping an eye on what was happening when he was off the field.
"We have a special quarterback group," said Bercovici. "I wouldn't want to be competing against those guys if I was a young guy that is for sure. They compete their butt off day in and day out. It's not easy to play quarterback for Coach Norvell, he demands perfection. We are excited about the development of those guys and I tell them that they are one play away so they have to prepare as a starter."
The Running Game
If there was one aspect of the scrimmage that drew the most "ohh and ahhs" from the crowd on Saturday, it was the running game. Four Sun Devils rushed for over 50 yards (including QB Manny Wilkins) and ASU's size at the position was on display all day.
Kalen Ballage carried the ball 10 times for 74 yards and two touchdowns. Demario Richard carried the ball just four times for 37 yards. Richard was not injured, according to Norvell they just wanted to get other backs more carries. Freshman Nick Ralston carried the ball a team-high 13 times for 39 yards. Walk-on Jacob Brimhall starred towards the end of the scrimmage, carrying the ball six times for 68 yards.
"We wanted to get Kalen (Ballage) a couple of more reps, he has been back and forth a bit (playing both offense and defense) in camp, we wanted to make sure he got a good number today," said Norvell. "Then you have guys like Gump (Hayes) and heck you see the young guy who just got here Jason Lewis with a big run so I am excited about where we are at."
("Gump" Hayes signs autographs for fans following ASU's Saturday scrimmage. Photo by Ryan Bafaloukos)
One of the pleasant surprises of the fall scrimmage was running back Jason Lewis. The Virginia Beach, Virginia, native was cleared to begin practicing on Monday, following an academic issue. He had been running primarily with the third team but on Saturday he stood out.
Lewis finished with a team-high 89 yards on the ground on just nine carries. Towards the end of the scrimmage, Lewis broke perhaps the play of the day, taking a run down the far sideline 62 yards for a touchdown.
As of Saturday, the three backs that will get the most work this season will be Richard, Ballage and Hayes (most likely in that order) however don't be surprised if Lewis works his way into the mix down the line.
With so many eyes fixed on the offense during the preseason, sometimes the defensive unit can get overlooked. It's a unit that returns nine starters from the 2014 squad. However, on Saturday it was the youth that stood out.
Freshman Jalen Bates tallied two sacks, JoJo Wicker posted two tackles for loss as well as a sack and sophomore Christian Sam notched two tackles for loss, one sack, one pass breakup and a forced fumble.
True freshman Kareem Orr, Khaylan Thoams and Marcus Ball each picked off a pass, with Thomas' going for a touchdown.
(Todd Graham speaks with Jordan Simone (left) and James Johnson (right) during a timeout of Saturday's scrimmage. Photo by Ryan Bafaloukos
"I'm really pleased, I think we are getting better," said Graham about his defense. "They (the offense) got a couple of long ones on us. I think they were very physical and getting after it and we have a lot of people who can play.
- As far as special teams go, Zane Gonzalez nailed field goals of 54 and 58 yards respectively. The 54-yard field goal was negated because of a defensive penalty and the 58-yard field goal was during a stoppage in play. Matt Haack averaged 47.2 yards per punt, including five punts of 50 yards or more and three inside the 20-yard line.
- Wide receive Jalen Harvey left the scrimmage with an upper body injury, the severity of which is not known. Other than Harvey, the Sun Devils came out pretty clean on the injury front.
- Perhaps the best moment of the scrimmage was when the team carried former ASU coach Frank Kush off the field. Graham praised Kush for bringing his team to Camp T in 1960.
- All statistics courtesy of ASU Sports Information Director Jeremy Hawkes.
(Todd Graham meets Frank Kush after the former ASU coach was carried off the field following Saturday's scrimmage. Photo by Ryan Bafaloukos)