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Analysis: 5 issues facing the Air Force defense before 2017 season opener

August 30, 2017 Updated: August 31, 2017 at 12:13 pm
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Air Force linebacker Grant Ross goes after Southern Alabama quarterback Dallas Davis during the fourth quarter. Davis was sacked on the play. Air Force defeated South Alabama 45-21 in the NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl on Friday, December 30, 2016. photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette

Analysis from beat writer Brent Briggeman on issues facing Air Force's defense as fall camp wraps and Saturday's season opener against Virginia Military Institute awaits (noon, at Falcon Stadium, ESPN3, 740 AM).

Overview: More experienced than advertised

Senior linebacker Grant Ross is technically the lone returning starter. But seniors Santo Coppola (27 games, seven starts on the defensive line), Jack Flor (22 games, three starts at inside linebacker), Marquis Griffin (22 games, two starts at cornerback) and Cody Moorhead (21 games on the defensive line) bring years of experience at their positions.

Granted, there have been few (if any) game snaps taken by first-time starters free safety Garrett Kauppila, strong safety Kyle Floyd, cornerback Robert Bullard, nose guard Cody Gessler and outside linebackers Matt Evans and Ja’Mel Sanders, but these are all juniors or seniors who are well-versed in their spots in coordinator Steve Russ’ defense.

What’s more, this group weighs nine more pounds on average among the starters (plus the top backups at nose guard and defensive tackle, who will rotate in) over the same defense from a year ago.

Emerging star: Defensive end Santo Coppola

Coppola slimmed down by 15 pounds after moving from defensive tackle to end and has the look of a player finally in the right position and primed to use all of his abilities – much the same as Ryan Watson a year ago, he compiled nine sacks at defensive end.

“You’re talking about a big, strong kid who can run,” defensive line coach Tim Cross said. “And I think one of the biggest areas where he’s made improvement on is his flexibility. So now he’s big and strong, but he’s lean and he can turn. He’s done a great job.

“I think he has a chance to have a big year.”

Most impressive fall camp: Cornerback Robert Bullard

Honorable mention needs to go to Garrett Kauppila (who held off James Jones IV) and Ja’Mel Sanders (who usurped Shaq Vereen). But Kauppila and Sanders were at least taking first- or second-team snaps from early in spring ball. Bullard wasn’t on the two-deep in spring. Also, at 5-foot-9, the junior overtook the 6-1 Dailen Sutton, 6-1 Zane Lewis and 6-0 Brett Baldwin at a spot where height can make a difference against taller receivers.

Position of concern: Outside linebacker

The “bandit” position, occupied over the past two years by Haji Dunn Jr. (10.5 career sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss), could be one that gives this team issues. Ideally, Matt Evans – a 6-4, 240-pound senior from Golden – steps in after years as a top backup and handles the position. But Evans has been injury prone through his career, and behind him are Abraham Nuno (who moved to this position from “spur” and is undersized at 6-0, 210), sophomore Jake Ksiazek (6-2, 250) and freshman Lakota Wills (6-3, 220). If an injury occurs, Ksiazek or Wills could certainly emerge in the way Dunn did two years ago; but you get the sense Air Force would prefer to wait one more year for that.

Biggest shoes to fill: Safeties

Weston Steelhammer was an all-time great, setting Air Force’s record with 18 interceptions, and Brodie Hicks was nearly his equal as a senior, ranking second to Steelhammer on the team in tackles, intercepting four passes, forcing two fumbles, recovering another and blocking two kicks. Stepping in behind them are strong safety Kyle Floyd and free safety Garrett Kauppila. At first glance, this new tandem is at least the physical equivalent. Floyd (6-2, 210) is perhaps the most impressive specimen on the team, and Kauppila is taller than Hicks at 6-2, but probably more like 6-3, and 205. But, watching them play primarily against Air Force’s option offense, it’s hard to gauge the football acumen that accompanies the physical traits.

“As a safety, (playing a conventional offense) is a lot more fun to do all the things that, as a safety, I like to do – play man, be in the open field with an opportunity for a pick or lay a dude out in the open field,” Floyd said. “That’s kind of my job description right there.”

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