Final day of Camp Tontozona belongs to ASU Football's defense

The Sun Devils played a scrimmage in front of a packed crowd

PAYSON - ASU Football wrapped up their annual trip to Camp Tontozona with a two-hour scrimmage in front of 3,042 fans on a breezy and sunny day in Payson.

Originally slated to start at 9 a.m., the festivities got underway at 10 a.m. The parking areas along the Arizona State Route 260 highway filled up hours before the events began.

Before practice began, the team lined both sidelines and honored legendary coach Frank Kush. This year’s camp was the first without Kush present, who passed away on June 22 at the age of 88. First, Graham spoke. In addition, former Sun Devil quarterback Danny White, who played under Kush from 1971 to 1973, led a moment of silence.

“I just want to thank the fans for coming out today,” head coach Todd Graham said. “It is the most unique experience I have ever been associated with. The relationships that are built here are incredible, just grateful to Coach (Frank) Kush.” 

Before the scrimmage began, the offense, defense and special teams did drills. The wide receivers made some incredible catches, including a nice over the shoulder catch by redshirt sophomore Trent Gilbert.

Redshirt freshman  Brandon Ruiz also cranked several 50-plus yard field goals with ease. The elevation might have helped Ruiz hit the football farther but his accuracy was impressive.

After the first few possessions of the game, it became clear the afternoon would belong to the defense. For most of the game, the kickers were doing all the scoring.

“The scrimmage is a great way to cap off the week,” Graham said. “The defense won the day. I think the guys we expect to make big plays made plays.”

Without further ado, here are the three biggest takeaways from Saturday’s action.

Takeaway No. 1: Front Seven Dominates

Last season, ASU’s defense struggled to stay off the field. The Sun Devils owned the second-worst defense (543 yards per game) and the worst pass defense (350.1 yards per game) in the Pacific 12 Conference in 2016.

A lot of blame for ASU’s porous pass coverage was placed on the Sun Devils secondary. But, senior defensive lineman  Tashon Smallwood said stopping the opposing quarterback and receivers starts up front.

“The emphasis is to dominate,” Smallwood said. “We know we didn’t do that well as a defense last year, but it starts up front. We know if we harass the quarterback, if we get sacks, if we get TFL’s (tackles for a loss), it is going to make our defense that much better. It is going to take pressure off our back unit."

“That was the emphasis during fall camp, that was the emphasis this week, that was the emphasis today, and we just have to put it together,” Smallwood said.

The front seven dominated the point of attack. Smallwood had two of the group’s six sacks and they complied nine tackles for a loss. Redshirt junior linebacker Christian Sam had eight tackles, including two for a loss and one sack. Redshirt sophomore linebacker Khaylan Thomas returned a pass from redshirt sophomore quarterback Blake Barnett for a touchdown, had five tackles and a sack. 

Senior linebacker DJ Calhoun, redshirt junior defensive back Tyler Whiley and redshirt sophomore George Lea each had four tackles.

Takeaway No. 2: Secondary Impresses

As mentioned above, ASU’s secondary was exposed last season. However, Graham was impressed with the group’s talent during early practices, and they certainly impressed Saturday.

The dominance of the front seven helped, but defensive coordinator Phil Bennett employed many different coverages and the cornerbacks executed. Alex Perry displayed tremendous instincts on routes and nearly had two interceptions. 

The 5-foot-11 190-pound freshman is one part of a talented secondary . Redshirt junior Joey Bryant and redshirt freshman and former four-star recruit Chase Lucas also hope to make their mark.

For now, Perry, under the leadership of first-year defensive coordinator Phil Bennett is confident the secondary will step up this season.

“Coach Bennett is probably one of the greatest coaches I’ve ever had,” Perry said. “He is teaching us pure technique. We have been playing the position off pure athleticism, but he has been doing this for 40 years. He knows what he is talking about.”

Takeaway No. 3: Mixed Bag for Quarterbacks

Redshirt junior Manny Wilkins got the majority of first team reps during spring practices. While that continued this week, Barnett also got first team reps Saturday and impressed.

In total, Wilkins was 8-20 with one touchdown, no interceptions and completed five passes for a first down. Barnett, a transfer from Alabama, was 8-18 for 81 yards, one touchdown, one interception and threw three passes for a first down. Sophomore Dillon Sterling-Cole was 4-8 with 69 yards and one interception. Cole looked good early but fumbled a few snaps. 

Barnett, who displayed good pocket presence and sneaky speed, said the Alabama to ASU transition has been a smooth one.

At Alabama, Barnett worked partly with then-wide receiver coach Billy Napier. Napier is in his first season as ASU’s offensive coordinator.

“The way things ended up playing out, with Coach (Billy) Napier coming over, I honestly think things could not have worked out any better,” Barnett said. 

Reach the reporter at or follow @joejacquezaz on Twitter.

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