Jamal Byrd's go-to dunk is to toss the ball off the backboard, catch it and cock it back before unleashing it with ferocity through the hoop.

"Just like LeBron," he said.

This is not an Air Force basketball player - though he has considered going out for the team - but rather the starting strong safety for the football program, a 5-foot-11 freak of an athlete.

"He can move left to right, side to side and he's got the ball skills," said defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator Charlton Warren, who compared Byrd to recent Air Force defensive back Jon Davis. "On top of that is his vertical, being able to go up and get the ball at its highest point, because he can dunk with the best of them."

With these abilities and being born on the grounds of the Air Force Academy while his father was stationed there during a 20-year military career, it would seem Byrd was always destined for this spot. But that was not the case.

"I always told myself I wouldn't do the military ... until I got the offer" said Byrd, who grew up in Tacoma, Wash. "My dad was real happy about it."

After attending the prep school he was on the junior varsity as a freshman and played 10 games as a reserve during his sophomore season. He entered spring in a battle with Dexter Walker to start at the safety position next to Christian Spears, and he instantly separated himself.

As Warren put it, Byrd had maybe the best spring of any Falcons defender.

"He's learned and learned rapidly," coach Troy Calhoun said. "He's one of those guys we need to be able to depend on."

Byrd said his grasp of the defense made the biggest difference in his development.

That allowed him to utilize the athletic ability that has long intrigued the Air Force coaching staff when they recruited the football player who was also a member of a national championship AAU basketball team.

"What you saw on tape was a skinnier, longer, very athletic kid who you hoped would develop into the body of a safety," Warren said. "And that's what he's done."

Now, with the climb up the depth chart complete, Byrd is counting down the days until the Aug. 31 opener against Colgate.

"It's really exciting," he said. "I've watched the upperclassmen in front of me and I've waited my turn. I feel like I've gotten better over the years and I feel like I'm definitely ready to fill the position."