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End comes quickly for Air Force senior class that had waited for its time in the spotlight

November 24, 2017 Updated: November 25, 2017 at 8:17 pm
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photo - Air Force Falcons defensive lineman Santo Coppola (97) yells after Wyoming Cowboys quarterback Nick Smith (15) is sacked at Falcon Stadium at Falcon Stadium, United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo., on Saturday November 11, 2017. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).
Air Force Falcons defensive lineman Santo Coppola (97) yells after Wyoming Cowboys quarterback Nick Smith (15) is sacked at Falcon Stadium at Falcon Stadium, United States Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colo., on Saturday November 11, 2017. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette). 

Senior Nights produce feelings as diverse as the players they honor.

For Air Force football coach Troy Calhoun this one leaves an incomplete feeling.

“Some of these guys, you would love to have them one more season as they start to head toward some of the areas of what would be their college football prime,” he said.

“I wish we had some of these guys a little more.”

The Falcons will enter Saturday’s 8:15 pm. regular-season finale against Utah State with 33 seniors officially on the roster.

Of those, 10 enter the final game as starters, included accomplished, multiyear playmakers like tailback Tim McVey, defensive end Santo Coppola, linebackers Jack Flor and Grant Ross, tight end Ryan Reffitt, kicker Luke Strebel and offensive linemen Jake Barnhorst, Alex Norton and JC Rast. Several from the class – including quarterback Nate Romine, outside linebacker Matt Evans and defensive lineman Cody Moorhead – will not appear because of injuries. Then there’s the majority, who never worked into roles with regular playing time.

This breakdown isn’t abnormal for Air Force.

What sets this class apart, however, will be its placement behind a class that dominated the roster for three years before graduating in May. With standouts like Weston Steelhammer, Jalen Robinette and many others so tightly ensconced into their roles there was little room for growth beneath them.

The Falcons followed back-to-back losing seasons by winning 28 games over those three years, twice winning 10 games and reaching the Mountain West Championship Game in the other season. What choice did the Air Force coaching staff have but to ride that class as much as possible even at the risk of a drop-off?

“Your obligation to your team and the respect you have for your players, I think the next-best guy has got to be the one to go in there,” Calhoun said.

The drop-off has come, as the Falcons (4-7, 3-4 Mountain West) will make a bowl game only with a victory over Utah State (6-5, 4-3) and a whole lot of help.

If that help doesn’t come, this group that so long waited in the wings will be gone.

“Trust me, I wish I had a lot more time, too,” Coppola said. “It’s kind of been up and down this season, so I’d love some more time because we feel like we have so much talent and potential here that we just haven’t been able to fully tap all of it.”

Calhoun said there’s a formula he’d like to see when it comes to dividing playing time by classes, but it’s rarely one that plays out. In a perfect world, of his 22 starters on offense and defense, about 10 would be seniors, seven juniors, three sophomores and one or two freshmen.

Such a breakdown, which is almost exactly what Air Force has this year, helps a program avoid the kind of situation the Falcons had in replacing 12 of the top 13 tacklers from the 2016 squad.

The fact is, these Air Force seniors Calhoun has lauded for their attitude in practice and “aptitude” as future officers, entered their final year with fewer than a dozen players who had seen substantial action. And now that some of them are growing more comfortable, the season is coming to a close.

“Definitely, this season has flown by,” linebacker Jack Flor said. “More time would be good. But I think what we’ve got to do is focusing on what we’ve got left, which is winning this game and working toward the possibility of another one, just trying to extend that time as much as you can.”

 

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