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Falcon Positional Unit: Previewing the Defensive Line

Familiar faces return after a year off

If you are a casual follower of Air Force football, and you are researching into how much experience the Falcons are returning on the defensive line, you might be misled into thinking that the D line would be a problem. The starters at the beginning of the year were George Silvanic, Joey Woodring, and Michael Purcell. All of these players were seniors and will be graduating soon. Woodring was injured for the last three games, and Kalawai’a Pescaia moved into the nose guard position as a sophomore and started the last three games, accumulating some amount of experience. Purcell missed the final game and the Falcons brought in a committee of players that included freshman Jayden Thiergood, junior McKenly O’Neal, and junior Brandon Gooding to fill his defensive end position.

Looking at the situation from that narrow standpoint, it does seem rather uncertain. However, you have to remember the Falcons allowed some player to leave the academy for a season and come back for another year of eligibility, and the D line was hit hard with the departure of two very good linemen in Jordan Jackson and Christopher Herrera. Jackson is a two time All-MW defensive lineman, and Herrera had shown good promise over the last half of 2019.

So here is my guess at the two deep depth chart for the defensive line:

Defensive Tackle:

  1. Jordan Jackson, senior
  2. McKenly O’Neal, senior

Nose Guard:

  1. Kalawai’a Pescaia, junior
  2. Kenny Ngaima, senior

Defensive End:

  1. Christopher Herrera, junior
  2. Brandon Gooding, senior

Jordan Jackson

As a sophomore in 2018, Jackson established himself as one of the top defensive linemen in the Mountain West. He accumulated 54 tackles including 12.5 behind the line of scrimmage and 4.5 sacks. He also had a tackle in the end zone for a safety, one QB hurry and broke up two pass attempts, making good use of his 6’5” frame and long arms.

In 2019, the other Mountain West teams realized they had to account for Jackson, and his stats fell, but he still exhibited his disruptive capability by accounting for 3.5 sacks, 4 QB hurries, 2 more pass breakups, one forced fumble and a blocked kick. He was named as honorable mention all-MW.

In 2020, Jackson was one of the many defensive leaders that took the turnback option to take the season off and come back in 2021.

Jackson’s name has appeared on at least one list of possible NFL draft picks, and a return to the kind of production he had in 2018 would help his case.

McKenly O’Neal

O’Neal began last season as an offensive lineman who had not seen action in his first two years. When several defensive linemen took turnbacks, O’Neal was shifted to defensive line along with George Silvanic to fill the holes. The Falcons often will give players practice time at multiple positions in order to provide options and depth at key positions.

His first real opportunity at playing time came in the final game last year against Army when Michael Purcell was out with an injury, and he responded with 12 tackles, including one for a 3.5 yard loss. As Silvanic himself said, “He’s like a better George Silvanic with another year of eligibility.”

Kalawai’a Pescaia

When Joey Woodring and Kaleb Nunez were lost to injury last year, Pescai’a stepped in and filled the nose guard position for the final three games. He only made a few tackles, but he also forced one fumble.

Kenny Ngaima

Ngaima has playing sparingly throughout his Falcon career.

Chistopher Herrera

Herrera took over as starting defensive end in 2019 three games into the season, and had strong performances the rest of the way. Last year, prior to the upheaval in the roster due to the pandemic, I had picked Herrera as breakout defensive player of the year. I expect a solid performance this year.

Brandon Gooding

After playing at defensive end in high school, Gooding has played mostly at linebacker with at Air Force. However, late last year, he was lining up frequently on the defensive line, and showed good pass rushing ability with sacks against New Mexico and Utah State for 11 and 13 yards.

That’s it for the defensive line, next week we will be looking at the linebackers.