PAYSON, Ariz., -- Four years ago this week then-walk on freshman Arizona State running back James Morrison cemented a stellar camp introduction with a 45 yard run in the program's most recent scrimmage played at Camp Tontozona.
Morrison is one of a small number of teammates -- only fifth year seniors -- who have seen this camp at the base of a mountain 17 miles east of this small town on the Mongollon Rim, but this year's experience will be nothing like their last.
For nearly five decades, ASU coaches took their teams to Tontozona for as much as two weeks, but in 2008, following the construction of the school's Dickey Dome, then-coach Dennis Erickson made the stay an overnight one. A year later, the Sun Devils didn't make the trip at all and until this year, haven't been back since.
What looked to be the start of a promising career for Morrison was derailed not long after his first experience at Tontozona due to a severe ankle injury while participating on the scout team.
For all of ASU's fifth-year seniors, this is a full circle opportunity, climbing from the bottom of the totem pole to the top, as players and caretakers of the program. For Morrison, it's even more than that, an opportunity to re-claim the excitement that propelled him into the conversation.
The opportunity is going to be there, though it wasn't always clear it would be. Senior starter Cameron Marshall won't participate in the scrimmage due to what first-year coach Todd Graham labeled fatigue, junior Kyle Middlebrooks (shoulder) won't play and sophomore Deantre Lewis has been in a green non-contact jersey this week as he's coming back from a hyper-extended knee.
Earlier in camp, Morrison was temporarily asked to work with the tight ends group, but returned to running back more recently, and has been with the first-team at times. In a battle to earn second-team reps against junior Marion Grice and others, Morrison will get the opportunity in a setting where he has some positive experience.
Graham may not know about Morrison's story arc but as a big fan of legendary ASU coach Frank Kush, Tontozona's patriarch, he does know how he feels about the Camp.
"It's a rite of passage," Graham said Tuesday. I'm thrilled that I have the honor to go up there. And I hope to get out of it what it was meant and designed for by Frank Kush. I hope that we will strain the heck out of them and come together as a football team. And that's they key. I hope that it will produce the kind of success that it did for them. I'm excited about it, I really am."
To this point, Graham said he's pleased with what the Sun Devils have been able to accomplish in his first camp with the program.
"I'm really, really proud of our guys," Graham said. "It's been remarkable. I have probably strained this group as hard as I have strained any group. And we probably need that as much as any group that I've been around. Kids are starting to become close. We are starting to see some unbelievable things out here.
"I think we have made remarkable progress. We are still real fragile but I'm just really proud of them I told them that today. It was a good practice today."
Freshmen making their mark
Graham has stated several times this month that he's been very happy with the recruiting class his staff was able to deliver in a short cycle. Nobody has stood out more than defensive linemen Jaxon Hood and running back/receiver D.J. Foster.
"Guys like D.J. Foster and Jaxon Hood are just, I don't know that I've see better freshman football players than those guys," Graham said. "Not just their talent but it takes a really mature -- I'm telling you this is a physical deal out here. It's physical. You got Jaxon right in there on the starting line on defense. And got D.J. going to be in the starting lineup on offense. Both of those guys I project are starting on game day. I'm I'm impressed with those guys, those guys are newcomers, I'm impressed with the guys that have been here. We are making progress. Don't think it ain't hard on them. It's really hard on them, a lot harder than they are telling you it is, I can tell you that."