Are Falcon fans getting too conditioned to expecting 10 wins a season from our football team? Coach Calhoun didn’t waste a lot of time after his third straight bowl victory over a power five opponent to start managing expectations with respect to the Falcon’s future challenges in maintaining that pace. Redshirting, the transfer portal, NIL financial incentives, academic and military demands, and legislative changes to the professional athlete provisions are leading in a negative direction for competitiveness according to Calhoun.
However, I can’t see that far into the future, so I’ll take it one year at a time and take a look at the roster losses and possible replacements for the team next year and what impacts that might have on the team.
In general, the team returns a strong base of players to build from. Obviously the most impactful losses will be on offense with the graduations of QB Haaziq Daniels and FB Brad Roberts.
Haaziq Daniels is in the record books as one of the most successful quarterbacks in Air Force history. He led the team reliably for 2 1⁄2 seasons and won 22 games, which ties him with Falcon legend Dee Dowis for second all time. His 71% winning percentage is fifth best in team history.
One of Daniel’s best traits was his durabilty. In his three year run behind center, he only missed one game. The negative aspect of that record is that he leaves the team with very little game experience at his position.
There are a trio of juniors who have seen game time and have the familiarity of being in the program three years - Jenson Jones, Ben Brittain, and Zac Larrier. They combined for 167 yards rushing and 80 yards passing (on one surprise deep pass by Brittain). Jones looks like a strong runner, and Brittain’s forte is as a passer. Larrier is more of a utility player who can provide some athleticism at tailback, receiver, or quarterback.
An intriguing possibility at the position is freshman Kemper Hodges, who spent the year on the scout team while familiarizing himself with the Falcon’s system. He was a three star recruit with the highest rating of any quarterback over the last decade. It remains to be seen if he can run the intricate Falcon rushing attack.
Keep in mind that three years ago, Daniels himself came out of nowhere to seize the job as a sophomore. Coach Calhoun and Coach Thiessen kept him in a pretty basic offense for a couple games while he became more confident in the offense. Fortunately for the Falcons, they’ll be starting their season against FCS Robert Morris and Sam Houston State, a team making their debut in FBS.
There is no doubt in my mind that the biggest loss on the team is the graduation of Brad Roberts. With Roberts at fullback, the Falcons transformed from a team that ran the fullback about 20-25 times a game to a team that ran the fullback 35 times a game. Time of possession went up 2 or 3 minutes per game, helping a good defense to drop their point per game average to about 16 points per game over the last three years. Daniels ran the ball 50 times per year less than had been the norm over the previous decade, when the Falcons at times were using three or four quarterbacks each year due to injury.
Here’s a video that encapsulates everything that made Roberts great:
⚡️ Trap hits fast! pic.twitter.com/a0T4S4wEpx— Coach Dan Casey (@CoachDanCasey) January 4, 2023
First of all, he gets great blocking from the Diesels. Second, he has the vision to see the two blockers coming at the linebacker, and the patience to adjust his footwork to let the block happen. Third, he adjusts his footwork again to slip out of a tackle that comes from the right. And fourth, he keeps his upper body moving forward to drag a tackler into the endzone, all the while keeping the ball in tight to his body.
Not only is Roberts leaving, but his two backups Emmanuel Michel and Omar Fattah should be graduating. I have been hearing that there is a strong possibility that Michel could get a turnback and return for a final season. It would be a major boost to the team to have his production and ability in the lineup. Underclassmen who saw some time and will have an opportunity for playing time are Jet Harris, Owen Burk, and Sione Agilau, who combined for 102 yards at fullback.
At tailback, John Lee Eldridge will be back after an impressive junior year, along with Jalen Johnson and Aiden Calvert. Together they combined for 913 yards. DeAndre Hughes will graduate.
One thing we’ve all learned over the last few years is not to worry about the offensive line. In fact, next year there is reason to believe the line will be even more dominant. Kaleb Holcomb, Wesley Ndago, Thor Paglialong, Adam Karas, and Everett Smalley will all be back for their third year as at least part time starters. This may very well be the “most experienced offensive line” in college football, after being the “least experienced line” in college football three years ago. Yes they will lose All American Isaac Cochran, but they have an able replacement in Ethan Jackman. Jackman came into the final regular season game against San Diego State after Ndago was injured and then started the bowl game against Baylor. At 6’ 4” and 300 lbs, Jackman is similar in stature to the last three 1st team All Mountain West offensive guards, Nolan Laufenberg, Hawk Wimmer, and Isaac Cochran. He looked more than able to handle all aspects of filling the large shoes of those predecessors. Another Joe Moore award finalist is in the works.
Seniors David Cormier, Ben Jefferson, Amari Terry and Kyle Patterson will all graduate. They combined for 640 yards and 5 TDs, mostly by Cormier. Returners contributed 240 yards and 3 TDs.
At tight end, Caleb Rillos and James Bryant return. With Patterson out most of the season, they each played in all 13 games. Rillos shows signs of being a good receiver if they throw it to him more often.
At slot receiver, Dane Kinnamon should be back after missing most of the season with a muscle strain. We know from his sophomore season and his first game this year that he will be a very productive player if he stays healthy. Two freshman who might be in the picture at the position or at tailback are Kade Frew and Jordan Scarbrough. Frew is yet another talented player out of the Bolles School in Jacksonville, following in the footsteps of Kyle Johnson, Jordan Jackson, Amari Terry, and Ben Mercer.
At wide receiver with Cormier’s departure, Brandon Engel and Wyatt Wilson will be competing for the starting position.
The Falcons lose a stalwart on their line next year - Christopher Herrera, who has the distinction of being the only Falcon ever to start on three 10-win teams. PJ Ramsey saw a good amount of action while giving Herrera a chance to rest, and will have a good shot at starter.
Jayden Thiergood returns at the other end for his fourth year of playing time, along with Peyton Zdroik at nose guard. Zdroik could play well at any position along the line and I’m expecting him to be named to the All Mountain West team this coming year.
At some point in the year, we might see freshman Jack Curtis make an appearance at DE. He entered this last year as the highest rated recruit in recent Falcon history according to 247 Sports.
There are two significant departures on this unit - TD Blackmon and Vince Sanford will be graduating. Blackmon was injured during the bowl game and was replaced by Jonathan Youngblood, who performed admirably with no drop-off in playmaking. Bo Richter is the likely replacement for Sanford. He has been squeezed out of the lineup by the amount of talent the Falcons have had at linebacker and should do a good job at the position.
Alec Mock will return at ILB and could possibly get some All MW recognition next year.
The spur linebacker will again be filled by Jayden Goodwin, in his fourth year of starting experience and improving every year.
Every starter from the unit that finished second in FBS in passing yards allowed last year, Trey Taylor, Camby Goff, Michael Mack, and Eian Castonguay (with Jamari Bellamy as a backup) are as good as any group of DBs in the conference.
Matthew Dapore is back for his third year as placekicker. He took a big step forward this last year, and is a reliable as any kicker in the conference. Coach Calhoun doesn’t hesitate to use him outside of 50 yards, and he hit 3 out 6 from that distance.
Punter Carson Bay will return after two years of experience. He was a little inconsistent this past year and might be pushed by freshman Luke Freer for the starting position next year.
The Falcons will be trying out a new long snapper next year as Brendan Bentley will graduate.
With the departures of Daniels and Roberts, expectations will not be as high for the Falcons next year. However with the all-important offensive line set up for a great year, and a highly experienced defense in place, the foundation is very good. If the Falcons can find a QB that can execute all aspects of the offense, another 10 win season is not out of the question.