Cheez It Bowl Football

Air Force linebacker Grant Donaldson (30) in the first half during the Cheez-It Bowl NCAA college football game against Washington State, Friday, Dec. 27, 2019, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Grant Donaldson has started eight career games, made 24 solo tackles — including two sacks. He’s earned defensive MVP honors in a bowl game and made six stops behind the line of scrimmage.

In Air Force’s current reality, that makes him the defense's elder statesman without a close runner-up.

“The coaches definitely came up to me and said, ‘You’re going to be one of the guys this year and we’re going to need you to step up and be that leader,’” Donaldson said. “I’ve just taken from what I’ve seen since I was a freshman … Kyle Johnson and all those guys I’ve just looked up to for the past three years.”

On Tuesday, Air Force players — Donaldson and slot receiver Ben Peterson — and coach Troy Calhoun spoke with the media via Zoom for the first time this season as the opener against Navy approaches Saturday. Among the topics addressed was the large number of defensive players, including all five returning starters, who are among the roughly 40 players away from the team on administrative turnbacks and unavailable for the season.

With the Mountain West originally planning a spring season, turnbacks for the fall semester became an option for extending eligibility.

Those remaining on the defensive side will play a season of eight games with little experience to rely upon.

“It’s going to be a lot,” Donaldson said. “A lot of the younger guys, they haven’t truly experienced what it’s like to play in a service academy game, but we’re hoping as the older leaders in this group that we can get them up to speed.”

Calhoun noted this would be a season that, according to some measurements, was going to leave Air Force one of the least experienced rosters in the nation even before the coronavirus led to many of his players opting to temporarily leave the academy for the purpose of preserving eligibility on the back end.

“Each year you have different things that come about,” Calhoun said. “And this season, certainly, I think more so.”

Asked if the players left on the advice of the coaches, he said they did not.

“Not at all,” Calhoun said. “That’s not something with which you’re involved. Like we said earlier, academically, I think there’s some advantages of being in person, where maybe that can occur down the road. I think the other thing, just in terms of military preparation as an officer, if you truly believe in your soul in the strength of the leadership experience athletically, we want to make sure we’re able to optimize that as much as we can, too.”

For now, Air Force is left with a defense where the experience is mostly limited to Donaldson and fellow outside linebacker Parker Noren.

“There are going to be some new guys that really haven’t played a whole lot in regards to college football,” Calhoun said. “You love the effort, you absolutely love the attitude.”

Donaldson explained his reasoning for not taking a turnback.

“Just the uncertainty factor, really, was the main thing,” he said. “Not knowing exactly what was going to happen. That is what convinced me to stay.”

The others who opted to stay will take the field 4 p.m. Saturday at Falcon Stadium.

“Regardless of who we have on the field, we’re going to be ready and we’re going to be prepared to go,” Donaldson said. “We’re just excited for the opportunity to be able to play this year.”

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