Air Force's defense will look entirely different in a football season that is suddenly back on.
Turnbacks have significantly altered the makeup of the team, particularly on that side of the ball, in a development that looms larger now that the Mountain West has announced plans for an eight-game season.
Returning starters including linebacker Demonte Meeks, defensive end Jordan Jackson, outside linebacker Lakota Wills, cornerback Milton Bugg III and projected impact players like defensive back James Jones IV and safety Trey Taylor are among the defensive players who are not at the academy this semester, multiple sources have told The Gazette.
The offense remains largely intact from August, with only receiver David Cormier missing. Tailback Kade Remsberg, fullback Timothy Jackson, slot receiver Brandon Lewis and a stout offensive line that includes preseason All-American Nolan Laufenberg and fellow Outland Trophy watch list member Parker Ferguson figure to be available on Oct. 3 against Navy and, presumably, for the remainder of the season.
The scope of the coronavirus pandemic prompted the Air Force Academy to inform all cadets of the available option of turnbacks, which provide an opportunity to separate for at least a semester under a provision designed for those facing hardships. For football players willing to extend their time at the academy, a turnback this fall combined with a football season in the spring of 2021 would have meant a rare opportunity for a fifth year of eligibility and a double season in 2021 (spring and fall). Seniors taking a turnback who were scheduled to graduate in May 2021 will instead graduate in Dec. 2021 and be available to play in fall of ’21, and those scheduled to graduate in May 2022 would be able to play in fall of ’22 and so forth.
Those taking turnbacks will not, presumably, be available to return this fall despite the Mountain West's decision late Thursday to bring back football on Oct. 24. Those players will miss out on a chance for an extra season of eligibility but will revert back to the original four seasons of playing time under a time frame that skips 2020.
So, Air Force (again, assuming those taking turnbacks will not be permitted to return this semester) will not suffer a net loss in terms of eligible seasons from what it would have expected pre-pandemic despite the Mountain West's plan to play this fall. However, with a reported 40 players taking turnbacks this semester under the expectation that football would not be played, the roster will be significantly thinner for this season whereas it would have been full strength if the season were to be played in the spring.
In short, here's what has happened according to what The Gazette has learned: The Mountain West moved its football season to the spring. Air Force, assuming that was a final decision, worked within academy rules to leverage that situation, accepting that would mean a diminished roster for games vs. Navy and Army. Now, the Mountain West changes course again, leaving Air Force with no apparent way to reverse its moves in the short term as it faces a nearly full schedule.
The team figures to be fully loaded for 2021 and beyond as the full roster returns, but games in the fall of 2020 will be navigated with many players not expected to be in spotlight roles.
The academy has refused to answer questions about the number of turnbacks or the cadets who received them. The football team has not updated a roster or issued a depth chart, with a spokesperson saying one will be available Monday or Tuesday.
Navy (1-1) began preparing for Air Force this week as it does not have a scheduled game this weekend. The Midshipmen have done so unaware of which players the Falcons will have available.
“Whoever it is going to be, it’s still Air Force,” Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo told The Gazette on Monday. “I know the type of kids they have, it’s the same type of young men we have – they’re going to fight to the bitter end. We always know a lot of their players because we recruit a lot of them. So we’re familiar with a lot of their guys even if they haven’t played”
At quarterback, Air Force will be without two-year starter Donald Hammond III because of a loss of good standing as a cadet. Hammond remains at the academy and is practicing, but a Mountain West move from spring back to fall means an end to his Falcons career unless he regains status or is given a turnback for the spring semester. Junior Warren Bryan and sophomore Haaziq Daniels are the frontrunners to take over at quarterback, while freshman Ben Brittain could be a surprise addition into the mix.
The Mountain West in August postponed its football season until the spring because of complications caused by COVID-19, but the Colorado Springs-based conference now joins nine of the 10 NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision conferences in forging ahead with a fall season.