Air Force beat Alabama in football on Wednesday.
It also topped Oregon. And Baylor. And Wake Forest. And a host of others.
No, the overall recruiting ranking didn’t stack up with those mainstays, but one after another prospects with offers in the Power Five and at other Mountain West programs opted for the Falcons to form a recruiting bonanza for coach Troy Calhoun’s team.
“It was definitely the toughest decision I had to make in my life yet, but I know now that it is the best one to make,” Nate Polk wrote in a personal essay to Sports260Az after becoming the highest-rated prospect in at least a decade to choose the academy. “I believe by attending the Air Force Academy it will make me become stronger, smarter, and a more focused individual.”
Polk has seen his brother, Ray, make it to the NFL after starring at Colorado. And he’s heard stories of his father never seeing action in an NFL game after bouncing between the Raiders and Buccaneers.
It was enough to make the 6-foot-2 safety opt for the more secure — if more difficult — route.
That was the recurring theme Wednesday, and one reiterated by the biggest shocker of the day.
“In making my decision, there were no cons for either school,” said tight end Kyle Patterson of Washington and Alabama in an interview with Arizona Central. “But I was just looking at all the pros, and Air Force was definitely right.”
The 6-foot-6, 235-pound son of NFL veteran Shawn Patterson spurned overtures from four Pac-12 schools and Syracuse in addition to Nick Saban’s program when picking the Falcons during his signing ceremony. He called it a 40-year decision over a four-year decision in turning down the Crimson Tide. That’s the mantra preached annually by Air Force coaches. But this year that message stuck in ways it never has.
The Falcons’ class includes 21 recruits who have earned three-star ratings by 247Sports, Rivals or ESPN, which nearly doubles what it has attracted in most good years and is more than any other Mountain West program signed this year.
“We are excited about this group,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said, before cautioning against becoming enamored with rankings.
“Time will answer that,” he added. “The best part is we’ll find out in four years. It really is going to be that long; that’s almost always the case. A minimum of three years, but really four years just to see where you are with a group.”
Those 21 three-star recruits include 11 defensive players, eight from offense and two who could be slotted on either side.
They hit every position group.
“We kind of felt like overall, we wanted to address each spot,” Calhoun said. “And we feel like we were able to do that.”
So, what changed? Calhoun believes it helped that the coaching staff was largely intact through the process, though popular coaches Tim Cross and Taylor Stubblefield departed in recent months. He felt that the staff’s focus on clear communication while being genuine resonated with this group, as he said it typically does when dealing with intelligent recruits with involved, aware families.
It likely didn’t hurt that recent Air Force grad Garrett Griffin just caught a touchdown pass for the New Orleans Saints in the NFC Championship Game and another, Ben Garland of the Atlanta Falcons, was awarded the NFL’s Salute to Service Award.
Concrete examples of players making it at the next level is never a bad thing for recruits tinkering with the thought of a service academy yet unable to totally set aside their NFL aspirations. Also, in the second year with the early December signing period, the Falcons were able to position themselves to catch some recruits who saw offers fall through early. Calhoun estimated that about 85 percent of the overall college class was signed in December, yet his team signed more than two dozen players Wednesday and nine with three-star ratings were among them.
In general, once a few three-star players start coming in, they can attract a crowd.
“#Boltbrotherhood,” wrote signee Tyler Brown on Twitter,
“It’s getting out of hand.”