The Cheez-Its haven’t had time to grow stale, yet Air Force is already ready to return to football.
Fresh off a season that ended with a No. 22 ranking, an 11-2 record, an in-state sweep of Colorado and Colorado State and a victory over Washington State in the Cheez-It Bowl, the Falcons will begin spring practice Wednesday at 3:45 p.m.
Gone are a pair of assistant coaches, defensive line coach Terrance Jamison to Purdue and longtime linebackers coach Ron Vanderlinden to retirement. Also missing will be a class of 31 seniors, including standouts like nose guard Mosese Fifita, receiver Geraud Sanders, linebacker Kyle Johnson, defensive backs Jeremy Fejedelem, Garrett Kauppila and Zane Lewis and linemen Scott Hattok and Connor Vikupitz.
Still, the practice fields will hardly be barren on the experience front. Quarterback Donald Hammond III, tailback Kade Remsberg, offensive linemen Nolan Laufenberg and Parker Ferguson, linebacker Demonte Meeks, defensive lineman Jordan Jackson and cornerback Milton (Tre’) Bugg III will be among those returning to work for 15 sessions that run through March 18.
Here are five things to track during spring practice (all classes listed by what players will be in the 2020 season):
The backup quarterback
Donald Hammond III joined some teammates and the Air Force dance team for a halftime routine at a basketball game on Saturday night and looked noticeably trim. He’s coming off a junior season that included 13 touchdown passes and 13 rushing scores and a 177.9 quarterback rating. He’s the clear starter and has a chance to etch his name among the program’s top echelon at the position. But that’s also a spot that has been marred by injuries over the past seven years, and last year saw key contributions from Isaiah Sanders and Michael Schmidt behind Hammond. They are both gone, leaving an open competition for the key No. 2 spot. Expect to see junior Warren Bryan and sophomore Jake Smith (who famously outdueled Trevor Lawrence in high school) among those seeing the most early reps behind Hammond.
The defensive secondary
No position group will take a bigger hit than this one. Fejedelem was a three-year starter, Kauppila was a fixture (when healthy) over that same time and Lewis manned a cornerback spot for the past two seasons. Grant Theil was also a regular as a fifth defensive back. Only Bugg, at cornerback, returns among regulars from last season, though James Jones IV will also be back either at cornerback (where he provided depth last year after returning from a knee injury) or safety (where he started as a sophomore). Twin seniors Elisha and Elijah Palm will factor into the conversation, as could seniors like Valentino Espinoza, Demani Hansford or Colby Raphiel. Juniors Corvan Taylor and David Eure are also back.
There figures to be an entirely new crop of fullbacks at spring practice, as junior Timothy Jackson is likely to see little to no action as he recovers from a knee injury and Taven Birdow and Christian Mallard are preparing for graduation. Senior Matthew Murla and junior Omar Fattah have the most time in the program among the contenders on the depth chart, but expect to see a crowd of young players vying for action at the spot.
No area — in terms of statistics — will be left as empty as the receiving spots. Sanders and Ben Waters formed Air Force’s most potent pass-catching duo in decades and are gone. Both were expected to face a challenge for playing time this past year by David Cormier and Brandon Lewis, who lost their sophomore seasons after falling out of good standing as cadets. Cormier was a former three-star recruit who excelled in basketball and football in the mold of Jalen Robinette. Lewis is a speedster at the slot position who earned playing time as a freshman. If both are healthy and regain status at the academy, they’ll be front-runners at the receiving spots.
The new faces
The success in 2019 was largely traced to the large senior class. But that is also the biggest detriment the team faces, as even most backup positions were monopolized by players now exiting. Among the sophomores this past season, only Jackson (fullback) and Christopher Herrera (defensive line) became regular starters. The soon-to-be-junior class had a number of top recruits who have played behind established veterans, including linebacker TD Blackmon and Noah Bush and outside linebacker Brandon Gooding. This could be their spring to make a move. Same for freshmen like tight end Kyle Patterson, who spurned an offer from Alabama to play at Air Force.