A month ago, Air Force freshman defensive end Nick Fitzgerald was a role player, getting about a dozen snaps a game while trying to regain some of the 25 pounds he lost in basic training and learning the Falcons’ complicated defense.

Saturday, he was starting at Notre Dame. That says something about Fitzgerald’s ability, but it probably says more about the state of Air Force’s defensive line.

The Falcons use three defensive linemen in their 3-4 alignment, and all three of their Week 1 starters are out. End Zach Payne and nose guard Ryan Gardner are out until mid-November, at the earliest. End Ben Kopacka was out against Notre Dame too, with a shoulder injury that has him questionable at best for Thursday’s home game against San Diego State. Those injuries are a major reason the Falcons rank last among Football Championship Subdivision teams in rushing defense, allowing 235.2 yards per game on the ground.

“We thought that was going to be one of our older, more veteran spots,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “These guys have had to go in there and mix it up.”

The rash of injuries on the defensive line have allowed the Falcons to take a long look at young players like Fitzgerald, freshman end Joseph Champaign and sophomore Daniel Vinson, which should pay off in the future. The problem is those young players aren’t fully developed, and the Falcons need results now.

“Assignment wise, they’ve been pretty reasonable,” Calhoun said. “We have to be more active. We had an awful lot of one-on-ones where we had chances and good angles to get to the passer or tackle the ball carrier, which is something we have to do.”

The positive development is it appears Fitzgerald could end up being very good for the Falcons the next few years. He played most of the game at Navy, and had seven total tackles. The starting assignment at Notre Dame was out of necessity after Kopacka’s injury, but there was a reason he got the nod.  

Fitzgerald was getting interest from schools like Texas Tech and Tulsa before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in a scrimmage before the first game of his senior year of high school. He came to Air Force, spent a year at the prep school and is now a big part of the Falcons’ defensive line rotation.

“I still had trouble the first four weeks, going the wrong way, doing the wrong step, everything,” Fitzgerald said. “Play by play, I just had to learn it, step up and help the team.”

Fitzgerald said he was 266 pounds before basic training, and about 240 after it. He’s back to 255 pounds, and has room to grow physically as he matures, which is a good thing for a Falcons defense that doesn’t get too many large linemen.

Not many freshmen play for Air Force. Basic training wears them out, but also, the Falcons run complicated schemes on offense and defense. Fitzgerald was learning on the fly as he got his 12 or so plays a game early in the season, but he had to mature in a hurry when injuries struck the line.

“After basic training I was hoping I could make the varsity team,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s different, with the big crowds and everybody, but you can’t let that get in your head. You just have to get out there and do it, just step up to whatever they need me to do.”