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The Way Forward for Air Force as Spring Football Ends

Air Force juniors look to the 2019 season to win the Commander in Chief’s Trophy for the first time

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Air Force Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

As is tradition, Air Force football hasn’t exactly been an open book in terms of explicitly outlining plans to achieve their goals for this fall. Even with a limited number of press conferences or official statements throughout the spring season, fans can find some solace in the fact that a tight-lipped coaching staff isn’t an indication that the Falcons aren’t taking this season more seriously than ever.

The rising Second Class Cadets (equivalent to college juniors) and younger have yet to experience a Commander in Chief’s Trophy winning season and it’s clear they’re starting to get anxious. On Monday of this week, the West Point football team traveled to the White House to ceremoniously re-receive the Commander in Chief’s Trophy, and despite President Trump’s nod to the strength of the Air Force team, some of the Falcon players were not pleased with Army Coach Jeff Monken’s response.

Army QB Kelvin Hopkins fired back with this after seeing several Air Force responses.

Beyond all of the hypothesizing and analytics of football, it’s possible that Air Force has been missing out on some intangibles. Last season, the Falcons had a rotation of three stellar quarterbacks who could have probably been successful interchangeably with Isaiah Sanders, Donald Hammond III, and Aarion Worthman. Injuries notwithstanding, the defense had some impressive players with Lakota Wills and Garrett Kauppila. It seems that talent was never a question when trying to understand why exactly the Falcons went 5-7, and why four of those losses came at a margin of less than a touchdown.

Play-calling, a lack player leadership due to the revolving door of starters, and a breakdown of confidence seemed to be the driving factor. Arguably, the key component to a successful season for 2019, aside from mitigating turnovers, is experience and coming together as a team.

Who Will Step Up?

At the end of last season, Donald Hammond III was first on the depth chart. Isaiah Sanders, however, was a very close second. Both quarterbacks were neck and neck in terms of playing time, with Sanders appearing in eight games and Hammond in nine. Sanders actually had a higher rushing average per game with 58 yards to Hammond’s 41. Sanders also averages 105 yards passing per game to Hammond’s 69 yards per game, but Hammond threw five touchdowns while Sanders threw four.

Obviously in a triple option system, looking at quarterback stats will only get you so far. The intangible nature of what makes a triple option unit click is difficult to really nail down. To an extent, there’s an eyeball test of sorts required, but it’s still important to have passing ability in your back pocket to catch the defense on its heels.

So with such a close statistical situation, it’s understandable that the choice is tough, and quite frankly, it’s a great problem to have. We still need to look at that leadership piece, though. With so many games coming down to the wire, we can’t rely on statistical advantage. It’s a matter of asking who has the leadership ability to bring the offense together and march down the field in the final minutes of the game. Establishing that person can be hard for coaches, but it’s difficult to take on a leadership role if a QB feels like the job isn’t fully theirs. Last season, Air Force tried splitting up the duty of quarterback across the games and it didn’t work. Hopefully this season, the coaching staff will select a quarterback and stick with him.

On defense, the obvious emerging leader is the academic All-American Garrett Kauppila. After sustaining an injury, he only played in eight games total in 2018, but still totaled 35 tackles on the season. Aside from his stats, Garrett seems to be an innate leader on the team. He’s been named a member of the NCAA D1 Football Oversight Committee.

He’s also notoriously positive and loves lifting up his teammates.

Along with Kauppila, the defense seems to be well taken care of for the upcoming season, with returning players like Jeremy Fejedelem, Lakota Wills, and Mo Fifita.

Keys to The CIC and Chances of Going Bowling

The obvious leader in the pecking order of goals for Air Force football each season is to win the Commander in Chief Trophy. I can only speak for myself here, but I’ll happily go on the record and say that I would rather finish up 2-10 versus 10-2 if it means that we get to bring the trophy back to Colorado Springs, where it belongs.

Navy is likely in another rebuilding year. They need to replace their kicker Bennett Moehring, and the competition seems to be between a punter and a kickoff specialist. Quarterback Malcolm Perry, who will likely start for the Mids this season, is an unimpressive, stock triple option quarterback. He’s a low threat passer, with a 36% completion rate last season, but he does have some quick feet and a decent run game, averaging 6.3 yards per carry. Coach Ken Niumatalolo has expressed frustration with funding and support for the football team, so it’s hard to see Navy as a dangerous team, but they’re an extremely well-run as a program and their game could easily click at a moment’s notice.

Army, on the other hand, is a threat to Air Force’s CIC hopes. Their philosophy and execution is extremely simple. They emphasize no offensive turnovers, go for the first down on fourth, and control the clock. They’ve done an outstanding job of accomplishing these goals. To beat Jeff Monken’s team, the Falcons will need to play disruptive, bold football while also avoiding turnovers and mistakes. In the Air Force vs Army game, punting will be practically as detrimental as a turnover fumble. They need to score and take control of the clock as much as possible.

An interesting ranking was released this week. That is, the academic progress rate, or APR. It’s a measure of student athletes who graduate from their respective university, and Air Force earned the highest ranking in FBS football. As an incentive, the NCAA will allow for the highest teams to play in bowl games if they finish 5-7 or better. Obviously the quality of the game can be called into question for a team with a record below .500, but bowl games are undoubtedly important for money and reputation for a team. It’s a nice little insurance policy having this, but hopefully the Falcons will be able to earn a bowl bid on their own.

Final Thoughts

It feels like the Falcons have been rebuilding for two seasons now. They graduated some talent that was difficult to replace with Weston Steelhammer and Jalen Robinette in 2017, but last season was frustrating. Another year older and another year more experienced, the returning players are primed to have a great season. I believe the keys will be decisive actions in terms of strategy by opening up the playbook, establishing a hurry-up offense for the final moments of each half, and allowing leaders on the team to plant themselves firmly in their roles. I’m hesitant to make any predictions or be overly confident about the season, but now is a great time to be cautiously optimistic.