A lot has changed for Air Force football in seven weeks.
As the Falcons returned to their indoor facility for the beginning of spring practice Wednesday perhaps the biggest difference was seeing some familiar faces in the unfamiliar position of leading without older players around.
Sure, Donald Hammond III has already started the bulk of two seasons at quarterback, but he did so with older players like Geraud Sanders, Taven Birdow and Connor Vikupitz around him. Same with Jordan Jackson on a defensive line he had shared with Moses Fifita, or Milton (Tre’) Bugg III in the secondary where he was the only non-senior last year.
The safety net is gone for players like that.
“There’s no one that we’re looking up to, everybody’s looking up to us,” said Bugg, one of nine soon-to-be-seniors who started multiple games as sophomores (three more joined them as starters as juniors). “It’s a scary transition at first, but when you have a great group of guys underneath you it makes it pretty easy.”
To Bugg, the leadership role he feels the need to fill is on the field. He’ll be the one making checks and making sure the secondary is communicating.
“It comes down to me, and I just want to jump into that role and just accept it wholeheartedly and lead this defense to the type of success we had last year,” he said.
“I didn’t anticipate me being here so fast, but my dad always says time flies when you’re having fun. So I guess that’s what ended up happening.”
For Hammond, who like Jackson is a returning captain, the transition will be more about leading with his voice.
“Our class isn’t a vocal class,” he said. “We don’t have a lot of vocal leaders. Me and (Jackson), we’re trying to get more people integrated into being leaders just because last year had 31 seniors and they really led, and most of them were vocal leaders.”
The Falcons routinely start practice this early, but the transition happened faster this year because of the late-December bowl game that capped an 11-2 season that finished with a No. 22 ranking. The thinking behind the schedule is to complete the 15 practice sessions before spring break in early March, which allows the end of the school year to be spent with academics and a focus on weight training.
“I just think it’s invaluable for us, with our development window here at the Air Force Academy,” coach Troy Calhoun said. “You’re instilling the ethos of your team. That’s why it’s just imperative for us to always be really, really involved with football in addition to what we do in terms of the growth; physical improvement we make in the weight room, too.”
Some coaching adjustments for the defense include new hire Bill Sheridan taking over the defensive line. Brian Knorr has replaced the retired Ron Vanderlinden with the inside linebackers, Andre Morris is working with the “spur” hybrid safety/linebacker position and Alex Means is with the “bandit” outside linebackers.
Among the football moves was the shifting of Chance Stevenson back to quarterback after a year at tailback. He'll complete with Warren Bryan and four freshmen to back up Hammond.
Just seven weeks. So many changes.
“I know it’s my time to be up there in the top of things and try to get everybody to follow behind and get everybody back to where we were last year,” said Jackson, who earned Mountain West recognition after each of the past two seasons. “Or even better.”