The fans who came to watch Air Force’s scrimmage Saturday didn’t see any defensive lineman as dominant as Ben Garland, which isn’t a surprise.
They did see plenty of good things from the defensive line. A sack by end Zach Payne, and a few plays later, another sack by nose guard Bradley Connor. They saw the line help stuff four straight run plays – and force a fumble on fourth down – after an offsides penalty gave the offense a first-and-5. End Rick Ricketts also made a fantastic tackle in a goal-line situation.
This is how the Falcons will replace Garland, who is now with the Broncos. They can’t assume they’ll find another Garland, the kind of elite defensive lineman that doesn’t come along too often at the academy. Instead, Air Force wanted to establish a deep group of linemen who would play well together in an effective rotation.
One of the highlights of training camp has been the emergence of about six or seven linemen who can substitute and bring different strengths to the front three.
“I don’t think there will be any one superstar, like maybe we had with Garland,” defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt said. “But by committee, I think you’re going to see some high motors and good intensity.”
The starting three has been the same all of camp – Ricketts is the leader of the line at one end, Payne is at the other end spot, with Ryan Gardner (Garland’s literal replacement) in the middle. After them, Connor, Caleb Konemann, Ben Kopacka and Wylie Wikstrom have all had good moments.
“Everything has to come together,” defensive line coach Ron Burton said, “because everybody has bits and pieces. Nobody has the whole package.”
Air Force knows its secondary will be perhaps the best in the Mountain West Conference, and its linebackers are gelling. The defensive line was one of the biggest questions of the offseason.
“We’re really coming together,” Gardner said. “There’s a lot of competition at all three positions.”
There was no guarantee the defensive line would mesh so well. Coach Troy Calhoun said defensive line, cornerback and tailback are the toughest positions to recruit at the academy. Yet, through August, the group has alleviated some concerns.
“It’ll be interesting to see in the first game,” Burton said. “Out here (in practice), they have improved.”