A linebacker spent the summer analyzing data at a think tank in Washington, D.C.
A receiver was on the mend from a torn thumb ligament that kept him out of spring practice.
A fullback touched the field for the first time since the jarring news that his friend, teammate and the previous starter at his position was no longer with the team.
The juniors recently completed Air Force operations that took them to bases all over the country. The sophomores completed survival training several weeks ago. And the freshmen, they were only about 48 hours removed from the march back from basic training at Jacks Valley.
The first day of practice is always unique at Air Force, as players reconvene after varied summer experiences and blend in with the new class for the first time. And that was the scene Friday, as the 2019 team came together at the practice fields west of the Cadet Fieldhouse to open the season.
“I’m super excited,” linebacker Kyle Johnson said. “It’s good to have the guys back, be all together and strap up again.”
Johnson — the No. 1 management major in his class with a 3.94 GPA — spent his summer interning at the Center For Advanced Defense Studies, a nonprofit that provides data-driven analysis. He researched, analyzed data and helped write dossiers for intelligence agencies. Now he’s back in the middle of an experienced defense that is expected to be improved.
“From a sheer talent standpoint, the defense is better than last year,” Johnson said, noting that it didn’t appear that way Friday as there were multiple mistakes as the result of the quick installation of the entire defense.
On offense, Geraud Sanders is back from a thumb injury and eyeing a breakout senior season. The receiver possesses the build for it, as he’s up to 220 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame. He spent time this summer with Crull Fitness in his Texas hometown, with cornerback Zane Lewis joining him for multiple workouts per day and some friendly competition. Sanders recently ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash and has his squat over 400 pounds.
He said missing spring practice will likely benefit the team, as young receivers like David Cormier (who caught two deep passes in the non-padded practice Friday), Logan Mann, Luke Bohenek and Jake Spiewak had the chance to develop in the offense.
But after sharing time with Marcus Bennett for the past two years, Sanders is hoping this is the time for his breakthrough.
“It’s got to be. No question,” said the senior who has 23 catches for 440 yards (19.1 ypc) and three touchdowns in his career. “We’ll put in the work to get there, but that’s what I’m working for.”
Fullback Taven Birdow worked as the No. 1 fullback Friday, which was to be expected when returning starter Cole Fagan was removed from the team after rushing for 997 yards as a junior last year. Birdow said the news was difficult to receive, since Fagan is a close friend. But Birdow is also ready to work to keep that No. 1 spot and maintain the production the Falcons want at the position.
“What I’m looking forward to is being able to develop a rhythm and get going,” Birdow said.
Coach Troy Calhoun was particularly pleased with the energy from the freshmen on this first of 25 practice opportunities the team will have before opening against Colgate on Aug. 31. The practice included a rain shower that dampened practice for several minutes but didn’t force the action indoors.
“They still have pretty good bounce in their step, even as hard as basic training was,” Calhoun said of the freshmen.
The seniors had bounce too, but that was because of their circumstances instead of in spite of them.
“I’ve done this for 18 years now, and this is the last time I’ll do it,” Birdow said. “I’m trying to wrap my head around it right now.
“It definitely brings a new attitude about, when this is all you have left. Your attitude is changed and the hop in your step is a little bit larger.”