Air Force defensive line a position of strength in 2014

Air Force defensive lineman Nick Fitzgerald sacks New Mexico quarterback B.R. Holbrook during the first quarter of a game at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, on Saturday, October 20, 2012. (The Gazette/Jerilee Bennett)

Nick Fitzgerald had to make a choice last year - make a name for himself on the beaches of Destin, Fla., or make a name on the Air Force defensive line.

He opted for the Falcons.

Fitzgerald gained 20 pounds and will play this year at around 290 pounds. To do this he refrained from his annual pre-March weight loss.

"Usually I cut down a little bit for spring break just to have a better-looking body," the senior from Flower Mound, Texas, said. "It's hard to gain mass and do that at the same time. This year I decided, 'Hey, I'll go there fat for one year.'"

Behind a beefed-up Fitzgerald on one end, Alex Hansen on the other, Troy Timmerman on the inside and loads of experienced depth behind them, Air Force feels it has corrected the issues up front that plagued it last season.

"Truth is last year we weren't very good players there," coach Troy Calhoun said. "But the baptism is over."

Through two weeks of practice, the line is gaining more penetration and, as was the case when the team went live in full pads Wednesday, there's often no room for running backs to make a first cut.

Experience is a huge factor in this change. While Hansen started all 12 games last year, seven players notched starts at the other two defensive line spots. Five of those seven return, including second-teamers Ryan Watson and David Harris, both freshmen last year, who will again factor into the rotation.

Others who didn't start but saw time were Dylan Bungum and Dillon Beschel, who along with Robert Green will give Air Force a luxury it had little of last year - seniors stockpiled at backup spots.

Another factor is the change in player size. Fitzgerald is bigger, as is Hansen and most of the others. Third-team member Jalen Lacy, a converted quarterback, isn't listed on the roster, but he looks like he might have the largest frame of the bunch.

"I can definitely feel the strength being able to take on double teams," Fitzgerald said. "As long as I've got my pad level low I feel like I'm not getting knocked off the ball ever. That feels good."

Timmerman has made a transformation the other way, dropping 20 pounds to play this year at 250.

"It really depends on who you are," Timmerman said. "For me at 270 last year it was too much for my frame to carry. But I even got stronger and got rid of some of what was holding me back, so I can feel how much quicker I am now."

Perhaps the biggest difference may turn out to be the hiring of defensive line coach Tim Cross, who was most recently an assistant at Texas.

Fitzgerald said at times in the past defensive linemen were focused on trying simply to make it through practice, not necessarily make themselves better. Under Cross, that has changed.

"He brings a whole new energy and mentality to the game," Timmerman said. "Before we were playing football out there. Now we're hunting."

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