It looks like we are on the 100 day countdown to a likely? football season, so it’s time to build some knowledge on the key players who will lead your team to victory this year. Or, if you are not a Falcon fan, who will provide obstacles to reaching the Mountain West championship game. If you read James’ article on top ten returners for San Diego State, you will notice a heavy emphasis on defensive players, which is typical for the Aztecs. In this list you will notice a heavy emphasis on offensive players, which is typical for the Falcons.
First up on the list is someone who in my mind is the preseason favorite for Offensive Player of the Year in the Mountain West.
1. Donald Hammond III, QB
When you look at his stat sheet, nothing will really jump out at you, except that he is a well rounded dual threat quarterback. Hammond rushed for 553 yards, 13 TDs, and 4.6 yards per carry in 2019, and he threw for 1316 yards and 13 TDs, with an astonishing 23.5 yards per completion. Except for yards per completion, a lot of quarterbacks have better stats than that. But what Hammond does is run a triple option team as well as anyone ever has. He has an excellent grip on knowing when to let the fullback have the ball for the dive, and when to pull the ball out of his gut and take the ball to the outside. If he holds onto the ball, he can find the seam and run with power that a 6’2”, 220 lb. frame can bring. And if the pitch is the result, he will hold the ball until the right moment arrives and force tacklers to commit away from the tailback. On short yardage fourth down plays, he is near automatic at finding the right seam for a first down.
When it’s time for the Falcons to change it up and surprise the defense, Hammond has a strong arm for downfield throws, as his 23.5 yard per completion stat shows. Last year his completion rate was mediocre at 50.45%. His results were affected by a shoulder injury he sustained against Hawaii. He was removed from the game, but came back the following game, and proceeded to only complete 7 out of 22 passes the following three games (all wins however). He also had a poor game against Navy, when he completed only 10 of 25 passes, as the Falcons were forced to come from behind after some sloppy fumbles. I expect a completion percentage closer to 60% this year.
Of course, no quarterback can run or throw the ball very successfully unless he has a solid offensive line blocking for him, which brings us to the number two player on the list.
2. Nolan Laufenberg, LG
Laufenberg broke into the starting lineup in 2018 as a sophomore. Over the off-season he added 30 pounds up to 315 and didn’t lose a step. For those of us that watched every Falcon game and saw defenders unable to stop the fullback dives and QB sneaks, counter plays and sweeps, we knew it was a special year for the offensive line, and three linemen were honored with All-MW selections, with Laufenberg on the first team. Then the statisticians and analysts started watching tapes and adding up some of the more obscure stats you don’t see in the newspaper. Laufenberg ended up with an average 21 knockdown blocks per game, about a third of all offensive plays. Pro Football Focus figured out that Laufenberg’s Wins-Above-Average was .27 which was the second best left guard number since they started figuring it in 2014. PFF rewarded him with a ranking as the third best returning offensive lineman in the country, behind only Outland Trophy winner Penei Sewell and First Team All-American Wyatt Davis. Watch for his name to get called in next year’s NFL Draft.
3. Demonte Meeks, ILB
The Falcon defense usually struggles against the pass, but most of the time puts up an excellent rush defense. It’s a necessity when you play the likes of Army, Navy, Wyoming, and San Diego State a lot. Leading that rush defense this year will be Demonte Meeks, a senior linebacker. After playing in 11 games in 2018, he took over the starting linebacker position next to Kyle Johnson and proceeded to produce a team leading 98 tackles, including 4 sacks, 9 TFLs, 4 quarterback hurries and one forced fumble. He was named all-MW second team, and with the departure of Logan Wilson, Mykal Walker, and Kyahva Tezino to graduation, should be preseason first team MW.
4. Kade Remsberg, RB
Returning for his third year as the featured tailback in the Falcon backfield, Remsberg sports elite speed and a shifty running style. He ran for 1050 yards and 8 TDs in 2019, including two game-deciding diving touchdowns against Colorado and Washington State. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry last year in spite of not having any rushes longer than 29 yards. He got carried away at times last year trying to juke defenders into missing a tackle instead of accelerating past them using his speed. I would not however expect him to lead the league in rushing yardage because he’ll be splitting carries with the next player on my list.
5. Timothy (Duval) Jackson, RB
Last year, the Falcons lost their leading rusher from the previous year, Cole Fagan, before the season due to his suspension and court martial. Taven Birdow became the starting fullback, and the Falcons regularly deploy a backup fullback so they moved Jackson into the position. He broke out with 117 yards on 20 carries in the game against Fresno State, which corresponds with the start of the Falcon’s eight game winning streak to end the season. He is not a normal Falcon fullback at 6’ 2” and 185 pounds, but is a strong runner who hits the holes quickly and can make tacklers miss. He was injured the last couple games of the season, but should be full speed for next season. He finished the season with 745 yards, 6 touchdowns, and 6.1 yards per carry. At times he looked like an even more explosive runner than the speedy Remsberg.
In order to maintain the offensive production of Hammond, Remsberg, and Jackson, the Falcons need another big guy on the offensive line to go along with Laufenberg, and they have just the right guy with the next player on the list.
6. Parker Ferguson, LT
I considered putting Ferguson at number three on the list, he probably should be right next to Laufenberg, since that is the way they line up on the Falcon’s front line. As Bill Connelly of ESPN says, “the left side of the offensive line, guard Nolan Laufenberg and tackle Parker Ferguson, might be as good at what they do as any pair in college football.” He is rated by PFF as the eight best returning offensive lineman in college football. He averaged 12 knockdown blocks per game, so he or Laufenberg were putting someone on the turf on half of all offensive snaps. According to PFF, he was the 6th best left tackle in run blocking, second best LT in wins above average, and has only allowed 10 pressures on 279 career pass-block snaps. Inexplicably, he was left off the All-MW team.
7. Jordan Jackson, DE
The cupboard is not completely bare on the defensive side. Returning for his third starting season is 6’ 5” Jordan Jackson, a two time All-MW winner. In 2018, Jackson was credited with 54 tackles, 12.5 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 2 pass breakups (tall and long arms), 1 QB hurry, and a safety. He actually regressed a little in 2019 with 38 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2 pass breakups, 4 QB hurries, one forced fumble, and a blocked kick. Possibly offensive lines concentrated more on holding him in check, which allowed Mosese Fifita to tally 7.5 TFLs, force two fumbles, and recover three fumbles. Fifita was named first team All-MW, and Jackson garnered Honorable Mention.
8. Milton (Tre) Bugg III, CB
Bugg is a solid coverage cornerback and a decent tackler. He finished the year with 49 tackles, 7 pass breakups and 3 interceptions, including the ESPN #1 play of the year in college football.
The Falcons need playmakers that can make a few big plays and Bugg is a top candidate to do that next year. Also, with the defensive scheme at Air Force, the pass defenders need to keep their assignments in front of them and not give up big plays, and Bugg did a good job of that last year. As you can see in the playback above, he has good speed as well.
9. Lakota Wills, OLB
Wills has been a very good playmaking defender ever since he was given playing time as a freshman three years ago. Unfortunately, he has a tendency toward injuries that keeps him out of the lineup. He has 10.5 TFL in the last two years in limited time, as well as a forced fumble and recovered fumble. If he can stay healthy, he could provide the disruption needed for a very successful season.
10. Grant Donaldson, OLB
When Wills has been out with injuries, Donaldson has been more than adequate as his replacement. In the Cheez it Bowl, he made the key defensive play when he sacked QB Anthony Gordon and forced a fumble which resulted in a touchdown 4 plays later and a 17-7 Air Force lead. Because of that play, he was named Defensive Player of the Game.
That concludes my top ten Falcon players for 2020, but I want to mention a couple of players who I think could break out next year and provide some very key plays.
A. Brandon Lewis, WR
It’s fairly unusual when a freshman at USAFA gets much playing time, so when a player does get that experience, you know he has some good talent. Lewis played in four games as a freshman in 2018 and caught 5 passes for 100 yards. Last year, he was looking like a contender to be a starting receiver, and then he got in some trouble up on the hill, lost his good standing as a cadet, and had to sit out the season. He practiced this spring and will most likely fill Ben Waters’ shoes nicely. He is one of the fastest players on the team.
B. TD Blackmon, ILB
The Falcons have been very solid at the linebacker position for the last few years. Lakota Wills, Kyle Johnson, Brody Bagnall, Demonte Meeks, and at spur linebacker Grant Thiel have been solid tacklers with the ability to pressure the QB. TD Blackmon was one of the highest ranked recruits for the Falcons in 2017, and has had to bide his time on the bench. With similar size and skillset to Meeks, he should be ready to take over Johnson’s spot and perform well.
Did I miss anybody? Let me know in your comments!