Isaiah Sanders gave Air Force about 196 reasons to keep competition open at the quarterback position in spring practice.
In a relief start that closed his sophomore season, the local product from Palmer Ridge ran a team-record 44 times for 196 yards and three touchdowns to lead the team to a 38-35 victory over Utah State.
The coaches haven’t forgotten this.
“(Sanders) showed a lot,” said quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen. “He showed that it’s not a one-man show. There’s more guys than one who are trying to be the starting quarterback. This will be the opportunity to go show who they are.”
The actions of the coaching staff backs up those words. The quarterbacks, including returning starter Arion Worthman, were free to be hit and tackled in a scrimmage on Saturday morning. That will be the plan throughout the next three weeks as the Falcons decide if they’ll allow history to repeat itself.
Remember, Worthman also earned his big break in relief as a sophomore. He ran for 102 second-half yards in relief of Nate Romine in a 2016 game at Fresno State. The Falcons came from behind to win that night, then stuck with Worthman through five more victories to close that season.
As a junior, Worthman had Air Force at 4-6 before an MCL injury knocked him out. Romine and Sanders started and earned a split over the final two games as Worthman watched.
“I think I learned a lot in the two games I was out, just learning the flow of the game and see what I can do better just watching as opposed to playing,” Worthman said. “I was able to sit back and get a different perspective of the game.”
Worthman said he was cheering for Sanders in that late-night finale at Falcon Stadium along with everyone else.
“I was excited for him. That was an incredible game,” Worthman said. “Isaiah stepped in like I knew he would. He’s been working in the QB room, just learning and writing notes all the time. He’s always taking notes. I knew he’d be fine. It was just a matter of getting the butterflies out and executing, and he did that well.”
It’s not just Sanders who could challenge Worthman. Sophomore Donald Hammond III, who can stack up with either in terms of size and arm strength, will get an abundance of work this spring. Junior Michael Schmidt and sophomore Beau English are also among those who will get auditions.
No spots are safe on this team. That much is clear. And Worthman has no problem with that coming off a season in which his yards per carry dropped from 5.2 as a sophomore to 3.8 as a junior.
“For me it’s always internal motivation; always trying to be the best player I can be,” Worthman said. “I’m glad we’ve got a lot of talented quarterbacks out here who are going to push me.”
Depth has proven to be critical at that position, as Air Force hasn’t had one quarterback start each game through a season since Connor Dietz in 2012.
But right now it’s not just depth that’s in question. It’s the spot at the top.
“There’s a few to work with for sure,” Thiessen said. “It’ll be an interesting spring. A lot of competition that hopefully makes everybody better. It’ll be interesting to see how that whole thing shakes out.
“There’s so many things to correct from last season that I think every guy on our team has a lot of work to do.”