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Air Force opener: New faces ready for starring roles on defense

September 1, 2017 Updated: September 1, 2017 at 7:31 pm
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Top row (from left): Garrett Kauppila, Ja'Mel Sanders, Cody Moorhead. Bottom row (from left): Robert Bullard, Cody Gessler, Kyle Floyd, Matt Evans.

Two years ago, Garrett Kauppila spent Parents Weekend convincing his family he actually was part of the Air Force football program.

Evidence suggested otherwise, as he watched the game in the stands lost among his 4,000 fellow cadets.

“I was like, ‘I’m a football player, I swear,’” Kauppila said.

Last year wasn’t much better. He suited up. Even traveled sometimes. But he never played.

“I was a nobody. I was taking scout teams reps, working hard, trying to give the offense the best chance to prepare,” said Kauppila, who figures to start at free safety in Saturday’s noon opener against Virginia Military Institute at Falcon Stadium. “I got to be down on the field – bonus! You don’t feel like you have that Saturday contribution.”

Saturdays are about to change for Kauppila and a slew of Air Force players just like him, who were buried behind a record class of 32 seniors and are now stepping into featured roles.

“I can’t put it into words,” junior nose guard Cody Gessler said. “I’ve been grinding for the past two years waiting for this opportunity. I’m pretty fired up about it.”

“Oh yeah,” strong safety Kyle Floyd added, “been waiting.”

From a competitive standpoint, Saturday’s game is unlikely to offer much drama. VMI is an FCS program that finished last year on a six-game losing streak. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun called VMI a “playoff-caliber team with what they have,” but Southern Conference coaches saw it otherwise, picking the Keydets last among nine teams.

VMI hasn’t won a season opener in seven years, is replacing a record-setting quarterbacks and has 16 first-year players among the 44 on their two-deep depth chart.

The Falcons even have a weight advantage at virtually every spot on the field, an advantage almost unheard of for the program.

This is no knock on Air Force’s schedule. In a season in which half of the nonconference slate consists of road trips to Michigan and Navy, the Falcons get a pass here.

But with or without a close game, this will be a landmark day for many players sporting a bolt on their helmet and living out the scenario they long pictured for themselves.

Floyd, Gessler, Kauppila, Robert Bullard, Matt Evans, Cody Moorhead and Ja’Mel Sanders will draw their starts on a defense that returns only linebacker Grant Ross among last year’s full-time starters.

For Sanders, the new “spur” outside linebacker, who saw the field only on special teams while playing behind Dexter Walker and Jacob Onyechi, the wait was at times excruciating.

“I’ve definitely had a few phone calls home to my mom, like, ‘I don’t know if I should be here,’” Sanders said. “The struggles got to my head a little bit. She always told me to persevere, and I could do it and God’s not going to put you through anything you can’t handle. That’s stuck with me these past four years.”

The only question now, aside from how all these newcomers fare on the field, is how the players control their emotions when the clock strikes noon.

“We’ll see on game day, but I don’t think it will get to my head too much,” Sanders said. “I’m focused in on the game plan, been studying film, and I’ll just let it come naturally to me.

“I’ve played football before.”

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