It is customary for Air Force football to work a few sophomores into the starting lineup now and again.
Three years ago it was sophomores Ronald Cleveland and Arion Worthman seizing positions. Two years ago Jeremy Fejedelem and James Jones IV became regulars, with a few others notching spot starts.
Last year 10 sophomores not only saw action, but made multiple starts. It was wave of youth seen just twice in coach Troy Calhoun’s dozen years — once when he gave the keys to his first recruits, a class that included Tim Jefferson, Asher Clark and Anthony Wright, and then when the group that included Weston Steelhammer, Jalen Robinette and Jacobi Owens arrived.
In both of those cases those classes finished their careers with multiple bowl trips.
Those are the kinds of shoes this current class of experienced juniors seem eager to fill after experiencing back-to-back 5-7 seasons.
“I can definitely feel it between us,” said offensive lineman Nolan Laufenberg, a Castle Rock native who started the final nine games last season. “I think we’re going to be really good this year and surprise some people.”
The experience can be found in nearly every position group. Laufenberg — 6-foot-3, 310 pounds — is joined by Parker Ferguson, who one-upped him by starting 10 games last year.
Both linemen came into the academy directly from high school, making their ascension into starters on the line as sophomores rare for the program.
“The best thing is they’re still pups,” offensive line coach Steed Lobotzke said. “They’re just getting better every day; getting bigger, faster, stronger.”
Kyle Krepsz didn’t start a game last year but played extensively in seven contests and is in line to give the Falcons a third junior starter on the line this year to go with seniors at center and right tackle.
The experienced juniors on offense also include quarterback Donald Hammond III (who went 3-2 as a starter last season) and tailback Kade Remsberg (who ran for 583 yards and three touchdowns last year, averaging 5.8 yards per carry).
“We’re super tight,” Remsberg said of the juniors. “Our class has grown a lot over the last three years. I think with this season it’s really going to show how much of a brotherhood we are.”
Added Hammond, “It’s really exciting to look forward to the next couple years. And this year.”
Defenders Lakota Wills (outside linebacker) and Jordan Jackson (defensive line) were the first from the class to earn extensive time, breaking through as freshmen. Wills started eight games in his first season, while Jackson played in 11 games while coming off the bench prior to a breakthrough all-Mountain West second-team season as a sophomore.
The pair were joined by classmates Tre’ Bugg (cornerback, four starts), Parker Noren (outside linebacker, two starts) and Demonte Meeks (linebacker, two starts) in the lineup last year. Grant Donaldson started four games in the middle of the season when Wills was fighting injuries.
Jones is also part of the class by eligibility now that he’s received a medical turnback.
“There’s a lot of people coming back from last season, so we know where the strengths and weaknesses are,” Jackson said. “We’re just trying to mesh. It’s a great time out there.”
The last time Air Force had this much returning in a junior class came in 2015, when it advanced to the Mountain West championship game. Even that class, which had early starts from quarterback Nate Romine, defensive end Ryan Watson, fullback Shayne Davern and guard Colin Sandor, in addition to Owens, Robinette and Steelhammer, didn’t pick up quite as much experience as this year’s juniors in their early years.
This year’s juniors include 10 players who have combined for 64 starts in their first two years. The 2015 juniors had 10 players make 60 starts as freshmen and sophomores.
That group followed the division championship season with a 10-3 campaign in its senior year.
“I wouldn’t say it’s just a junior thing,” Ferguson said. “I think it’s the juniors and the seniors. Last year you look at the starters and it was a lot of sophomores and juniors. … We kind of got on the field early, got that maturation process going. I think we’re really going to see the benefits of that this year.”
The next move will be to identify more contributors from the class. Elisha Palm has moved into position to start at cornerback. Josh Stoner could work into the mix with Remsberg at tailback.
“Our class has always been an energetic group,” Stoner said. “We’ve always been excited to be upperclassmen and see what we can do.”