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Air Force offensive lineman Isaac Cochran (73) walks to practice with defensive lineman TJ Love on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022.

When Isaac Cochran mentions working in the lab this past summer, he’s not using the trope so in vogue for athletes referencing time spent in the weight room.

Sure, Cochran — Air Force’s 330-pound preseason All-Mountain West offensive guard — was in the weight room, too. But he was literally in a chemistry lab at the Air Force Academy on a real-world assignment.

A materials chemistry major who is set to graduate in December and report to Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah, as a second lieutenant working in developmental engineering , Cochran used one of his three-week periods this summer on a chemistry research project. The Air Force has discovered the paint thinner it uses on aircraft is toxic to people and the environment, so Cochran’s team was tasked with finding a safer acid-based substitute.

Must of the front-end discovery was finished before Cochran came on board in a summer that was also carved up with an astronomical engineering class and serving as a cadre in combat skills training, so his job was testing the solution’s efficacy in stripping paint while using different concentration amounts and temperatures.

“Around average,” Cochran, a former high school valedictorian, said when asked how he stacks up as a student at the academy, making a statement that speaks volumes either about his modesty or the level of academic competition … or both.

As a member of Air Force’s retooled offensive line a year ago, Cochran went through much of the same experimental trial and error.

That line replaced all five starters, including a pair of NFL-bound players in Parker Ferguson and Nolan Laufenberg. The new five kept things going, helping the Falcons to a 10-3 record as the team led the nation in rushing and finished as a finalist for the Joe Moore Award (honoring best offensive line) along with lines from Michigan, Kentucky and Oregon State.

“I was nervous, as I’m sure the rest of the guys were,” Cochran said of the time a year ago when so much was unknown up front. “We lost a great group of five guys. Everyone stepped up. When people went down, the people behind them stepped up and it just keeping going like that and we had a great year.

“For us to be able to step in and even be able to emulate the kind of success that the lines before us had had in ’19 and ‘20 was incredible. We really came together and it was an awesome experience.”

The line doesn’t return fully intact, losing guard Hawk Wimmer, who coach Troy Calhoun calls “ as big and stout and physical of an offensive lineman as we’ve ever had.” But there is experience at each spot. Tackle Everett Smalley started 12 games last year as a sophomore and landed on the Outland Trophy watch list this season. Cochran started nine games. Tackle Kaleb Holcomb (eight starts), guard Wesley Ndago (five starts) and center Thor Paglialong (four starts) all played together in various combinations through the season and into spring practice.

The group averages around 6-foot-3 and 288 pounds.

“The big thing that sets us apart is trust,” Cochran said when explaining the value of the line’s collective experience. “I know that the guys to my left and right are going to do exactly what they have to. If there’s supposed to be a cut block on my back side, I know that he’s going to get the guy and not get into my legs, and that lets me move on and do my job without worrying what’s happening behind me.”

Calhoun had plenty to say about Cochran, a two-time conference champion in wrestling while in high school in North Carolina.

“Isaac has good size,” Calhoun said. “I think Isaac moves better. Isaac is completely committed to our development program. And I think Isaac’s a guy who’s always conscientious about everything he does. He’s that way academically, just the maturity that he has and certainly the way he’s been with football, too. Good frame. Highly competitive. Good poise. Good awareness. A really good football player.”

Cochran’s busy summer will lighten his load for his final semester in what has been a complete experience as a cadet-athlete.

“I’ve got a couple more boxes to check off in classes and one more football season to play,” he said, knowing he’s controlled the variables he can. “Then, that’s it.”

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