Air Force opens spring practice on Tuesday with plenty of questions to answer.
Here are some of the top issues that will need to be sorted out by the team that missed a bowl game for just the second time in 11 seasons under coach Troy Calhoun this past season as it went 5-7.
Who is the defensive coordinator?
With Steve Russ off coaching Luke Keuchly and Carolina Panthers linebackers, an integral piece of the coaching staff is in flux. Calhoun hasn’t revealed if he’ll promote from within – defensive line coach Tim Cross, secondary coach John Rudzinski, linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden and outside linebackers coach Matt Weikert have 27 years of experience on Air Force’s staff between them, and that doesn’t count Cross and Vanderlinden’s extensive track record before that – or if he’ll look elsewhere.
Who plays tailback?
Tim McVey is gone, leaving the first open competition at tailback since the spring of 2014 when Jacobi Owens emerged. The only tailback with experience is junior Nolan Eriksen (40 carries for 228 yards and a touchdown last year), though he has a deep group of classmates there to challenge him. Look also for sophomore Kade Remsberg to get spring reps or even fullback Taven Birdow to be given an opportunity at the position. There will be no shortage of candidates.
What is Arion Worthman’s status?
The senior quarterback didn’t play in the final two games, and the extent of his injury was never made known. Given the turnover at tailback, it would be beneficial to the team to get Worthman as many spring reps as possible to develop cohesion with his new running mate. Worthman led Air Force in rushing (831 yards, 13 touchdowns) and passing (49.5 completion pct., 1,115 yards, 10 TDs vs 4 INT) figures to be the team’s top weapon for a third straight season, but even with his experience, there are things he could improve upon over the 15 sessions.
Who backs up Worthman?
The battle to be the heir apparent at quarterback has been the most heated and consequential battle over the past two spring sessions. Two years ago Worthman beat out Ryan Brand, who subsequently transferred. Last year Isaiah Sanders gained a slight edge over Miller Mosley, who also left the program. This year Sanders – a junior from Monument – enters as the obvious No. 2, given his record-setting 44 carries in a 196-yard rushing performance in his lone start, a victory over Utah State in the finale. But sophomores Beau English and Donald Hammond III will be given every opportunity for advancement as well. Junior Mike Schmidt, who helped convert a key third down on his lone competitive snap last year, is also back.
Who plays inside linebacker?
Five positions on defense lost senior starters, including the inside linebackers spots manned by longtime contributors Grant Ross and Jack Flor. Seniors Blake Dailey and Brody Bagnall were the top backups, but juniors Kyle Johnson and Christopher Musselman were also seeing reps in practice. That position has been a strength since Vanderlinden’s arrival in 2014.
Which other defensive spots are open?
The questions on defense aren’t as numerous as they were last year at this point, as 12 of the top 13 tacklers were lost to graduation, but there are just as few definitive answers on this side after Air Force surrendered 5.9 yards per carry and forced just 10 turnovers. The defensive line should return intact with Cody Gessler/Mosese Fifita at nose guard, Micah Capra/Danny Highland at tackle and Jordan Jackson/Ryan Darby moving up to replace Santo Coppola at defensive end. Sophomore Lakota Wills is back at outside linebacker and three of the four starters return in the secondary with safeties Kyle Floyd and James Jones IV and cornerback Jeremy Fejedelem. The spur linebacker spot loses its top two from last year.
What about the other skill spots on offense?
The Falcons must replace tight end Ryan Reffitt, but junior Kade Waguespack returns after starting the final game. Ronald Cleveland brings two years of extensive experience at slot receiver and the trio of Marcus Bennett, Geraud Sanders and Jake Matkovich will be back to continue their battle at the wide receiver spot that Bennett eventually won last year. The fullbacks figure to be Birdow, Parker Wilson and Cole Fagan.
What’s the status of the offensive line?
The line will feature an almost entirely new group this spring, with only senior Griffin Landrum (6-foot-2, 280 pounds) returning. Backups Scott Hattock (6-5, 280, junior), Wolfgang Rehbock (6-3, 275, junior), and Christopher Mitchell (6-2, 270, junior) figure to have the inside track on starting spots.
What differences are there this spring?
The 15 spring sessions will be condensed into a tighter time frame this year. The starting point is about the same as in recent years, but this year the conclusion will come about three weeks earlier instead of extending to the other side of spring break. Also, the Falcons will be playing a spring scrimmage at Falcon Stadium following past exhibitions at Liberty High School, Fountain-Fort Carson High School and in Castle Rock. The spring game will allow fans a look at the ongoing construction on the stadium’s north end.
Who are the new coaches?
Defensive coordinator isn’t the only coaching position that will see turnover. Nick Jones was hired to coach tight ends, while Chip Vaughn will team with Rudzinski in the defensive secondary. Jones and Vaughn were both standouts at Power Five programs who had looks in the NFL. Another hire will be on the way to coach outside linebackers in addition to replacement for Russ at defensive coordinator.