Air Force football begins practice Friday with seven returning full-time starters on each side of the ball and a handful more who have started periodically in their careers.
Even among all that experiences, plenty of questions remain. Here are a few that will need to be answered before the opener against Colgate.
1. Who plays quarterback?
For the first time in at least six seasons, the Falcons will enter camp without a clear No. 1 quarterback — even if they maybe should.
Donald Hammond III won the job last year. Twice. He climbed past Arion Worthman and Isaiah Sanders after the first four games, then started in a dominant win over Navy. An injury the following week at San Diego State knocked him out for three weeks, and when Hammond returned he was behind Sanders until relieving him at halftime and sparking a comeback that fell short at Army. Hammond then started the final three games. In five games while Hammond was running the offense, Air Force’s attack averaged 470 total yards and 5.6 yards per rush. Without him against FBS competition, the Falcons put up 378 and 4.1.
But Air Force coaches — from Troy Calhoun on down — preach with regularity that everything at the academy must be earned regularly. Worthman is on active duty as a second lieutenant, but Sanders — whose performances against Utah State in 2017 and UNLV last year are among the top from an Air Force quarterback in recent years — is still there and brings experience to the offense as a senior. If it’s perceived Sanders has had the better offseason or outworks his junior counterpart in camp, it will be the Palmer Ridge graduate lauded for his academics and work in the community who will trot out with the first unit Aug. 31.
2. How much does Cole Fagan’s exit sting?
After running for 997 yards in a breakout junior season, fullback Cole Fagan was removed from the team in April and is the subject of an academy investigation. Talking with Air Force coaches, Fagan’s brute physicality as a blocker will be missed more than his running — and that’s saying something when considering he averaged 158 yards over the final three games.
The depth at the position is no issue. Taven Birdow has rushed for 640 yards on 138 carries over the past two years. Fellow senior Christian Mallard, a converted tailback, worked his way up to the No. 2 fullback spot in his first year at the position in 2018. Omar Fattah, Bo Gross, Timothy Jackson, Matthew Murla and Colton Parton are a few of the others returning. So, the Falcons will have options when developing the depth chart. But Fagan had the look of something special, and there’s no guarantee the next man up can recapture that.
3. Who supplies the big plays?
Ronald Cleveland made a habit of finding giant chunks of yards over the past three years, averaging 22.1 yards per reception, 7.1 per carry and scoring 14 touchdowns. As much as the Falcons pride themselves on long, sustained drives behind their ground attack, those big plays sure come in handy.
So, where do they come from now?
Slot receiver Brandon Lewis — Cleveland’s replacement — is a good place to start with his sub-4.40-second 40-yard dash speed. Tailback Kade Remsberg is also a burner, and he’ll be challenged for time by Nolan Eriksen and Josh Stoner.
The more likely answer for big plays, particularly because of Hammond’s arm strength, will be big-body wide receivers Geraud Sanders or David Cormier creating leverage and capitalizing on single coverage down the field.
4. Who are the odd men out in the secondary?
There are more returners than positions in the secondary. A good problem for a team. Not a good problem for the individual who ends up without a spot.
Even if the Falcons go with five defensive-back looks by putting safety Garrett Kauppila or Grant Theil at the spur linebacker spot, there still wouldn’t be enough positions for Jeremy Fejedelem, James Jones IV, Tre’ Bugg and Zane Lewis to play at the same time. And then there are others like the Palm twins (Elisha and Elijah), Colby Raphiel, Ben Waters, or recent three-star recruits like David Eure and Gary Mossop Jr. trying to earn a shot.
The secondary will be fun to watch over the next four weeks, with each dunk into the turnover bucket carrying a little extra meaning.
5. Who or what emerges as a difference-making factor?
Air Force fell a few breaks short in several games last year, as that second-straight 5-7 record could easily have looked more like 7-5 (or better).
So, how does that improve? A start would be a dominant position group on defense. The front — led by 330-pound nose guard Mosese Fifita (the team’s defensive MVP a year ago) and 6-foot-5, 270-pound end Jordan Jackson (a preseason first-team all-Mountain West pick) are perhaps as good a defensive line tandem Air Force has had — and certainly the biggest. If it can complement that with solid play out of Jared Bair or whomever emerges as the replacement for Micah Capra and then get a healthy season out of Lakota Wills on the edge, they could make the big plays to swing close games.
Behind them is a linebacker corps that has the coaching staff excited, led by Kyle Johnson.
But it starts with establishing the rotations in camp. And that starts Friday.