Updated: February 19, 2014 at 7:44 am
DeLovell Earls made it clear when he returned from a leg injury that he desperately wanted to return to the starting spot he earned last season.
That hasn't happened, but unlike last year Earls is playing starters' minutes.
In two road games this past week, the junior co-captain showed his value now that he seems fully healthy and fully accepting of his role as the sixth man.
In a win against San Jose State, Earls provided a late defensive lift, knocking the ball loose on a steal with 11 seconds remaining and securing the three-point victory with a block at the buzzer.
In helping the Falcons give a scare to No. 5 San Diego State, Earls had the most complete game of his career with 10 points, nine rebounds and six assists. The Colorado Springs School graduate also had a steal and committed just one turnover.
"He may not be the best scorer on the team, but he definitely picks up all the things that we struggle with - assists, rebounding," junior co-captain and fellow Colorado Springs native Kamryn Williams said. "He does all the little work. Without him we would really struggle."
It was a struggle for Earls to get to this point. Stress fractures in his tibia required offseason surgery. He made his debut in the 11th game of the season, but even then he was practicing sporadically and played more than 20 minutes in just one of his first nine games. During this period he also struggled with a shoulder injury.
Everything seems fine now. He has played 20-plus minutes in four of the past five games and has averaged 5.6 rebounds and 4.6 points in that span, giving Air Force the bench presence it had lacked.
"It's very important," point guard Tre' Coggins said. "I feel like he's finally finding his place on the team and what he's supposed to do and what not."
Though Earls earned a starting role last season, he didn't enjoy this kind of playing time. He averaged just 14.2 minutes for that team as he made 22 starts, averaging 3.9 points.
This year his name isn't announced at the start, but he's far more likely to be on the floor at the end.
It's possible that Earls could again break into the lineup, perhaps replacing Justin Hammonds, who has consistently picked up early fouls and struggled to stay on the floor. However, coach Dave Pilipovich seems reluctant to make that move and disrupt the lineup rhythm the team has developed.
Pilipovich said: "I like what he's doing right now because it gives us that other spark off the bench."