Anthony Wooding was a starter at safety for most of the season last year for Air Force. Jamil Cooks, a Sierra High grad, played a significant role his first two years and was penciled in to be a starter this season.
Receiver Mikel Hunter scored three touchdowns as a sophomore, three more as a junior, and was in line to be a big-play threat for the Falcons. Receiver Brandon Hirneise caught seven passes last year and was an option to take a good amount of the snaps at “X” receiver. Tight end Devin Durden had a shot to be a starter this season.
All five players aren’t with the team, and the Falcons appear to be planning as if they could be without them the whole season. Coach Troy Calhoun said the players weren’t suspended, but he confirmed they are not with the team, which began training camp Friday. A sixth player, safety Jay Fullam – a Vanderbilt transfer who also had a chance to play a big role – is done for the season because of a shoulder injury, Calhoun said.
Calhoun said the five players who aren’t with the team are all still at the academy, but refused to elaborate on why they were not with the team or if they could return.
“They’re not here,” Calhoun said, in a phrase he would continue to repeat for most questions about the five absent players. “They’re not on our team.”
In the past, when a player has not been allowed to participate in intercollegiate athletics for Air Force, one of four issues is usually the reason: a violation of the honor code, academics, military performance problems or a physical fitness issue.
Outside linebacker Stephan Atrice, who was ahead of Cooks on the depth chart after spring and was slated to work with the starting defense Friday, has a hamstring injury that will keep him out about two weeks. That seems to be the least of the Falcons’ problems.
Air Force lists just five returning starters. Wooding started eight games last year, and the other five players (including Fullam) at very least seemed likely to end up on the second string this season. For a team that lost a lot of talented seniors, losing six key contributors indefinitely before the season is a major blow, although Calhoun didn’t dwell on that.
“We’ve got a bunch of guys that are out here, and work hard,” Calhoun said. “We’ve got a group of guys with great attitude and guys that want to play football and guys that want to earn a spot. But you’ve got to earn it.”
The Falcons’ players took a similar attitude, that the unplanned losses wouldn’t be a hindrance for them this season.
“We have enough guys on the field who played all spring ball and are going to get a lot of reps,” quarterback Connor Dietz said. “This is the best January through summer we’ve had since I’ve been here, so depth isn’t a concern.”
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