Both quarterbacks who made starts, every player who gained yards on the ground and six of the top seven receivers from the 2009 season – all are expected to be back for Air Force in 2010.
But who’s going to block for them?
“That’s a big question mark right now,” sophomore quarterback Tim Jefferson said late last week.
When Air Force opens spring practices on Thursday, attention will be focused on the guys who typically don’t get much attention: the offensive linemen.
The Falcons started five seniors on the offensive line in 2009, and their starting tight end – Sean Quintana – was a senior too. Auditions for those starting roles begin in earnest Thursday.
“It’s pretty wide open,” coach Troy Calhoun said.
Indeed, only one player seems to have a handle on a starting spot – sophomore A.J. Wallerstein, who played some as a freshman and last season rotated in with the starters. Wallerstein estimated he played about a quarter of each game. He’ll likely play guard, though he also can play tackle.
Other than Wallerstein, however, the Falcons will be inexperienced up front.
Competing for time at center will be sophomores Michael Hester and Jeffrey Benson; at guard, in addition to Wallerstein, will be sophomore Kevin Whitt and juniors Tyler Schonsheck and Bradley Connor (moved from the defensive line); and at tackle, juniors Chase Darden and Alex Arndt will get chances along with sophomore Blake Dowd and freshman Jason Kons.
“We’ve got good bodies there, and they’re guys that like football, too,” Calhoun said. “They’re guys that love to lift, that like to practice and that’s why spring ball’s going to be key for them.”
While the linemen lack game experience, most got plenty of action in practice last season, as Air Force typically gives its backups as many snaps as its starters in sessions leading up to games.
“I’m not concerned about their ability to get the job done, because last year in practice it seemed like they got more reps than the first-teamers did,” Jefferson said of the backup offensive linemen. “Being prepared, I don’t think that’s going to be a problem.”
The backups often lined up last season against the Falcons’ standout starting defense, which “was always an experience,” Wallerstein said.
“I don’t think I played many better nose guards than (2009 starter) Ben Garland,” he said.
Wallerstein said he thinks Air Force’s linemen have “a shot” to be as good as last season’s group. But he admitted there’s pressure on them.
For good reason. With as much experience as Air Force has at the skilled positions, the Falcons’ fate seems to rest on whether the guys up front will develop into a formidable unit.
“To have a winning season,” Calhoun said, “it’s going to have to happen.”