Air Force senior nose guard Ben Garland will play his final game at Falcon Stadium this afternoon when the Falcons meet UNLV.
It’s sure to be an emotional day filled with handshakes, hugs and maybe even some tears.
And from Annapolis and various points across the Mountain West Conference, sighs of relief.
“I’m glad he’s leaving,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo said this week with a laugh. “He’s a heck of a football player.”
Niumatalolo has faced Air Force every year since the mid-1980s — first as a player at Hawaii, then as an assistant at Hawaii, UNLV and Navy, and the last two years as the coach of the Midshipmen. He called Garland an “all-time great” at the academy, saying he ranks “up there with” Bryce Fisher, who went on to have a seven-year career in the NFL.
“He’s as good as they get,” said Niumatalolo, who made a point to seek out Garland and talk to him after Navy’s 16-13 overtime victory over the Falcons earlier this season.
At 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, Garland combines good size (especially for the academy) with quickness, agility and superior “pad level,” meaning he plays low to the ground, despite his height. But ask Garland to name his strengths, and he replies, “I think just heart. … Taking each play as if it was your last.”
Garland has done that through 10 games, making 38 tackles and nine tackles for losses, including 4.5 sacks (sixth-most in the league). Those are huge numbers for a nose guard in the Falcons’ defense because typically the player in that spot is asked primarily to take up space and keep blockers off linebackers.
Garland does that too, of course.
Senior inside linebacker John Falgout said Garland makes his job “100 times easier.” Last week, for instance, Army had to change its blocking schemes to account for Garland. With Garland occupying double-teams, Falgout and senior inside linebacker Justin Moore combined for 25 tackles.
“He consumes blocks,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “Not just one blocker but multiple blockers on many plays.”
In addition to making things easier for the linebackers, Garland makes life simpler for the coaches. Calhoun said Garland has allowed the Falcons to use much more basic defensive schemes.
“With Benny Garland in there holding a point, he’s made it hard for teams to run against us,” Calhoun said. “I just think you’re playing a little more base defense. You don’t get nearly as concerned about having to get more hats down inside to stop the run because of what he’s able to do against a center.”
Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter said schemes often assign Garland “two-gap” responsibility, meaning he is responsible for the gaps to the left and right of the center.
“Wherever (the play) goes, he’s going to whip the center that way and play that gap,” DeRuyter said. “And he’s good enough to do it.”
Even with one hand.
Garland has played the past eight games with his broken right hand in a cast. And considering hands are nearly as important to a defensive lineman as they are to a wide receiver, that makes his production all the more impressive.
“On Saturday (against Army), there was one play where he didn’t play great, I think he ended up getting cut (blocked),” DeRuyter said. “And I said (to defensive line coach Ron Burton), ‘Burt, tell him he’s got to play with his hands,’ and he said, ‘Coach, he’s only got one.’ … It’s to the point where you don’t even notice that he’s got a broken hand.”
Garland is set to go to pilot training next year, though Burton, Air Force’s NFL liaison, said some teams have had an interest in him. Either way, Falcons’ opponents will be thankful they no longer have to deal with him.
“We knew coming into the game that he’d be a key,” Niumatalolo said. “And even having said that, I thought he dominated the game. We could not block him.”