The Falcons held a very early spring football session this year. The coaches decided to do this to give the cadet athletes more time after the training to get back in the books and finish up the semester taking care of academics. The spring camp was especially important this year for evaluating the players who can fill the rather large holes left by the departure of a strong senior class, and the Falcons concentrated on playing many of the younger players, while the established starters participated in drills and largely watched from the sidelines during scrimmages. Among the most productive players who have graduated are All-Mountain West first team players Mosese Fifita, a disruptive force at the nose guard position, and Scott Hattok, starting right guard and one of the stars of an extremely strong offensive line. The defensive backfield loses honorable mention All-MW players Jeremy Fejedelem and Zane Lewis. At inside linebacker, second team all-MW Kyle Johnson graduates and on the offensive line second team all-MW Connor Vikupitz also moves on. On special teams, honorable mention placekicker Jake Koehnke leaves along with his 100% 2019 field goal percentage.
The departing talent is large enough to result in the Falcons ranking #127 in Bill Connelly’s analysis of returning production for the 2020 football season. Connelly’s article is well worth a read and can be found here.
The good news is that no team in the Mountain West ranks very highly in this analysis, with Boise State the best at #62. Also, the Falcons do return some of the most important players on the roster in fullback Duval Jackson, tailback Kade Remsberg, and of course most importantly quarterback Donald Hammond. On the offensive line, Nolan Laufenberg, who averaged 21 knock down blocks per game last year, returns for a highly likely second-time first team all-MW season. Next to him on the line will be Parker Ferguson, who on the analysis website Pro Football Focus, is rated as the eighth best returning college offensive lineman (Laufenberg is third). On defense, the returning stars are second team all-MW inside linebacker Demonte Meeks, honorable mention cornerback Tre Bugg, and honorable mention defensive end Jordan Jackson, a two time recipient of all-MW honors.
So, what are the positions which need player to step in? In my opinion, the most important positions to be filled are in the defensive backfield. The Falcons usually give up a lot of yards in the passing game, but for this team, the most important thing a cornerback or safety can bring to the table is disruption. A timely interception is of course important, but a big pass breakup in the red zone or on third down, or a big hit at the line of scrimmage to stop a fourth down conversion is just as important. In the Falcon victory over Washington State, departing senior Jeremy Fejedelem twice came up with big fourth down stops in the redzone on tackles of running back Max Borghi. With the score of 31-21, that was a major factor in the win. At cornerback, departing senior Zane Lewis only had one interception on the season, but he led the Falcons by far with 15 pass breakups, many on key downs. Departing strong safety Garrett Kauppila was a multi-year starter and solid tackler.
The only returning starter from 2019 will be all-MW honorable mention cornerback Tre Bugg. He finished last year with three interception, seven pass breakups, and 49 tackles, so he is a solid starter for next year. Another player with starting experience is James Jones, who started nine games in 2017, but had to sit out all of 2018, and was a backup who played in 11 games in 2019 while playing back into shape.
In the search for replacements, others with playing time include Corvan Taylor, David Eure, and Elijah Palms and his brother Elisha. In the spring scrimmages two standouts were sophomore-to-be and three star recruit Trey Taylor, who had a couple interceptions and several stops near the line of scrimmage, and Demani Hansford, a senior-to-be who is very athletic and has lately shown an improved grasp of the defensive schemes.
The next set of positions that are problematic are the receivers. Gone are Geraud Sanders and Ben Waters, who were the most potent duo in the country in terms of yards per catch, and tight ends Kade Waguespack and Lesley Dalger. I must point out however, that neither Sanders or Waters had been a starter before (Waters had been practicing in the defensive backfield before this season), and the same question marks were there coming into this year. Also, two receivers who were expected to compete for starts last year were suspended from the team in the preseason for losing their status as cadets in good standing. Those two receivers participated in spring training, and stood out as possible replacements: David Cormier is a 6’3” three star recruit in the mold of Sanders, Marcus Bennett, and Jalen Robinette; Brandon Lewis has turned heads with his speed and ability to get open. Also Ben Peterson returns next year after getting extensive playing time this year. Other names to watch are Amari Terry, who performed well in spring, and Jake Spiewak, who was on the roster last year.
At tight end, the main question is who can learn to block well enough to act mostly as a sixth offensive lineman. However, a standout this spring has been Kyle Patterson, a 6’6” three star recruit who famously turned down an offer from Alabama to come to Air Force. He has shown the ability to make some tough catches this spring. Rhett Harms and Luke Miller were on the roster last year, and three star recruit Chris Kane rounds out the possibilities.
The situation at linebacker is much more settled with the return of All-MW Demonte Meeks and two year starter Lakota Wills. Grant Donaldson is also back after his Defensive Player of the Game award in the Cheez-it bowl. The inside linebacker spot filled by All-MW Kyle Johnson will need to be filled, possibly by Parker Noren or TD Blackmon. Junior-to-be Brandon Gooding, another three star recruit, showed solid tackling this spring from the outside linebacker position and has added strength and size onto his 6 foot 5 inch frame. He could fill the role of Jake Ksiazek, who made big plays last year in limited playing time.
On the defensive line the biggest whole to fill, literally and figuratively, is nose tackle, after 330 pound and first team all-MW Mosese Fifita graduates. Kalawai’a Pesscaia has performed well in the spring at that position, and Nokoa Pauole had playing time last year backing up Fifita. Jordan Jackson returns to wreak havoc from the defensive end position and Christoper Herrera, who took over the starting job at the other end mid-season returns.
Another very large question mark is the important position of backup quarterback. Of course DJ Hammond returns as a strong candidate for MW Offensive Player of the Year. Since most people think the position is defined by how well you throw the ball, Hammond was not at the top of everyone’s list last year, but in my opinion, he was masterful at making the right decisions on the option, an expert at making all short yardage third and fourth down runs, and outstanding on hurting opposing teams with deep passes when they over committed to stopping the option. In the middle of the season, his accuracy took a hit when he sustained a shoulder injury, and he could still use some work on improving his accuracy. This spring, he has dropped about 10 pounds to get more explosiveness and speed in his running game. However, over the last 8 years, no Air Force quarterback has been able to start every game due to injuries, and option quarterbacks take quite a beating. So a backup is crucial. The top two candidates appear to be Chance Stevenson and Warren Bryan. Chance Stevenson has spent the last two years at the running back position, but was originally a QB recruit. Last year he did complete both of his pass attempts on trick plays from the tailback position. Warren Bryan was on the roster last year and was only on the field for a couple of snaps. He was recruited out of high school by Army, Navy, New Mexico, and UNLV, and may have the inside track to the backup position. After two years of adjusting to the Falcon’s unique offense and a successful spring, he appears ready.
The Falcons are well-stocked at running back. Beside previously mentioned Kade Remsberg and Duval Jackson, Josh Stoner returns as the backup to Remsberg, and Matt Murla and Omar Fattah return as backups to Jackson. Robert Gross is another fullback who had a good spring.
The last position to review is the kickers. Both are gone to graduation. Tevye Schuettpelz-Rohl saw action for one snap last year on a extra point and made it good, but that is a very limited data point to be confident of his abilities. Another unknown quantity and intriguing possibility is Fabrizio Pinton, who committed to Air Force this year as the 11th ranked placekicker in the country. However, I have no information as to whether he will enter directly to the Academy this year, or spend a year at the Prep School, and it is very difficult for a freshman to adapt quickly enough to the Academy to contribute so quickly. We’ll have to wait for Fall camp to make a better evaluation.
That’s it for this edition. I welcome your thoughts and insights.