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Way too early 2022 Falcon roster preview

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Because there’s no college football to watch

Disclaimer: For those of you that aren’t already aware of Academy rules, once a cadet starts classes for his junior year, he incurs a commitment to serve in the armed forces or to pay back his education costs. For that reason fans of Falcon football hold their breaths as the fall semester starts, waiting for the shoe to drop. Next year will be particularly fraught since a much higher than normal percentage of significant contributors this past year were sophomores. I’m estimating 12 of the 22 starters will be juniors next year.

Offense

Offensive Line and Tight Ends

The Falcons rotate players in and out of the game on the line, trying to keep everyone fresh and matching skills with the play set. There are NINE returning linemen who saw significant playing time last year, and one of those, Adam Karas, also logged time at tight end in jumbo sets. Two linemen will have graduated by next year, first team All-MW G Hawk Wimmer and T Ryan Booth. The probable starting line and their class next year is:

  1. T Erik Smalley, Junior
  2. G Isaac Cochran, Senior
  3. C Thor Paglialong, Junior
  4. G Wesley Ndago, Junior
  5. T Kaleb Holcomb, Junior
  6. TE Kyle Patterson, Senior

The rotation will include senior T Mark Hiestand, junior G Luke Halstrom, junior T Ayden McCollough, junior TE Caden Blum, and junior T/TE Adam Karas, all of whom played in at least 5 games in 2021. Junior G Ethan Jackman who saw playing time in three games last year should also see some playing time.

I’m not one to take recruiting rankings too seriously, but the Falcons have been recruiting the offensive line at a higher level over the last few years. They have been able to attract some linemen that have been recruited by Power 5 teams and the increase in size has been notable since weight standards were relaxed for cadets while participating in football. I wouldn’t be surprised if the unit developed even more depth next year.

Running Backs and Wide Receivers

The Falcons will lose two contributors from this group: honorable mention All-MW Brandon Lewis and WR Jake Spiewak. Since analysts are interested in returning production, here are the numbers. Rushing yardage returning - 3986 yards out of 4267 yards (93%); Receiving yardage returning - 579 out of 1242 yards (46%). Here’s the likely two deep depth chart starting spring ball:

Fullback

  • Senior Brad Roberts
  • Senior Emmanuel Michel or Senior Omar Fattah

Tailback

  • Senior DeAndre Hughes
  • Junior Jordan Gidrey

Slot Receiver

  • Junior Micah Davis
  • Junior Dane Kinnamon

Wide Receiver

  • Senior David Cormier
  • Juniors Micah Davis or Dane Kinnamon

Quarterback

The Falcons lose backup quarterback Warren Bryan. Haaziq Daniels will be back as starting quarterback for his senior year. Returning production is 1184 yards passing out of 1242 last year (95%). Junior Zach Larrier should be the favorite for backup quarterback, however, as the reigning Mountain West champion in the 200 meter dash, he could choose to concentrate on his track career. Junior Jensen Jones saw a few snaps last year, and Juniors Ben Britain and Jake Smith are other backup options.

Defense

Defensive Line

The most consequential loss from this year’s team is from the D Line - Jordan Jackson. He’s been a fixture for three years, and has drawn the most attention from opposing blockers. The defense will still have a good amount of ability to get into the backfield - it will retain players with 71.7% of TFLs on the season - but without Jackson around to attract blockers, it might be a little harder. All three projected starters for the Falcons next year have good experience, but the depth is a little shallow and Coach Calhoun will be looking for candidates next spring.

Defensive End

  • Junior Jayden Thiergood

Nose Guard

  • Senior Kalawaia Pescaia
  • Senior Elijah Brockman

Defensive End

  • Senior Christopher Herrera

Linebackers

Departing seniors who had significant playing time are Demonte Meeks and Brandon Gooding, but this unit remains deep and talented. 81% of tackles produced will return next year.

Outside Linebacker

  • Senior Vince Sanford
  • Junior Matt Malloy

Inside Linebackers

  • Junior Alec Mock
  • Senior TD Blackmon
  • Junior Bo Richter
  • Junior Johnathan Youngblood

Outside Spur Linebacker

  • Junior Camby Goff
  • Junior Nate Polk

Defensive Backs

This unit takes the biggest hit in departures. Two honorable mention All Mountain West players, CB Tre Bugg and SS Corvan Taylor, graduate. Only 17% of tackles produced will return, and only 1 of 6 interceptions return.

Cornerbacks

  • Junior Michael Mack
  • Junior Eian Castonguay
  • Senior Zion Kelly
  • Senior David Eure

Strong Safety

  • Junior Jayden Goodwin
  • Junior Jalen Mergerson

Free Safety

  • Junior Trey Taylor
  • Senior Nate Polk

Defensive Coordinator

While I was writing this article, the Falcons announced that DC John Rudzinski would be departing to take the Defensive Coordinator position with the Virginia Cavaliers. I would like to add my congratulations to Coach Rudsinski on this advancement to his career and financial position. This kind of story is becoming common in the Air Force coaching community. Coach Calhoun and Coach DeBerry before him have created an excellent environment for Air Force graduates and coaches to develop into desirable coaching leaders for prestigious positions in college and professional football. This is the fifth consecutive defensive coordinator to leave for greener (in the wallet) pastures.

When Troy Calhoun became head coach in 2007, he named Matt Wallerstedt as DC, and he eventually left to become DC at Texas Tech, and is currently associate head coach at UTEP. After him, USAFA graduates Charlton Warren and Steve Russ became co-defensive coordinators. Charlton Warren left Air Force in 2014 and is currently co-defensive coordinator for North Carolina. Russ is currently linebackers coach for the Washington Football Team. Air Force grad Tim DeRuyter was the next DC, and he left in 2010 to become DC at Texas A&M, also serving as DC with Oregon, California, and Fresno State, and was recently hired as DC at Texas Tech.

When DeRuyter departed, Calhoun made the unusual move of not naming a successor until midway through the 2018 season, after the Navy game. Presumably, Calhoun did that that to confuse the Middies as to the defensive approach for the game. Rudzinski then took over, and his defenses have only allowed an average of 305 total yards per game the last three years.

Although it’s disappointing to see a coach of Rudzinski’s ability leave, I don’t foresee a major dropoff in store for the Falcons. Calhoun likes to promote from within, and in my opinion, the leading candidates are current defensive line coach Bill Sheridan and current inside linebacker coach Brian Knorr. Sheridan served as defensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from 2012 to 2014, and also as DC at Boston College under Steve Addazio until he left in 2020. Knorr had a previous stint as DC at Air Force in 2005 and at Indiana in 2016. Either choice would provide good continuity and stability for the defense. Another candidate is Chip Vaughn, currently a defensive assistant for the New York Jets. Vaughn served as defensive backs coach at Air Force in 2018-2019.