While the 2018-2019 sports season has officially concluded and summer is in full swing, today was in-processing day for the class of 2023 at the Air Force Academy, giving us something to check off the long list of things that have to happen before we can finally say it’s football season.
While we’re still a long way off from the first game of the season, that’s a good thing. As is tradition, Air Force is being secretive as to how they plan to attack the quarterback situation. For the eyes of anxious fans, luckily their covert tactics can only get them so far. We can make read into what is going on in the quarterbacks room based on how we left off at the end of last season.
Donald Hammond III was named the starter for the final four games of 2018. He was credited for a game played in nine matchups last year and established himself as a powerful runner, highly comfortable with the triple option offense.
Isaiah Sanders, on the other hand, played in eight games, and started in three games prior to Hammond taking over. Sanders went 1-2 in his three starts and from an outsider’s perspective, there really seemed to be no clues as to why one quarterback was picked over the other. In the loss against Boise State, Sanders went 10 for 15 in passing completion for 210 and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 97 yards on 28 attempts and a touchdown.
This season, with two returning quarterbacks, Sanders a senior and Hammond a junior, there is no lack of talent.
Both have similar statistics, with Sanders being a slightly stronger passer and Hammond being a slightly better runner in red zone scenarios, but after a lackluster record for last season, the question needs to be answered as to whether or not indecisiveness in naming a sole starter played a role in the losing record.
Air Force lost five games by a margin of seven points or less. There was an apparent unwillingness or inability to utilize a hurry-up offense at the end of the first half and at the end of the game. The answer to having an answer when the game is on the line lies somewhere at the cross-section of preparation and leadership. A two minute drill needs to be a priority going into this season and naming a starter outright will allow one of the quarterbacks to establish themselves as the leader in the locker room. Is it possible for both quarterbacks to have the trust of their team? Absolutely, but we tried that experiment last year, and it would seem that some change is in order.
Donald Hammond III
In his nine games, he rushed 83 times for 371 yards and nine touchdowns. From a film perspective, Hammond is a hard nosed runner with finesse. His first step is quick and he’s decisive when running. He’s really the quarterback you would trust to run in red zone situations. That’s not to say his passing game isn’t efficient. Hammond completed 38 of 72 passes for 623 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 69 yards per game. By the standards of any triple option team, these passing statistics are perfectly in line with a solid starter. With a year of experience with some starts, Hammond seems primes to enter a leadership role, but so does Isaiah Sanders.
Sanders, who is currently considered less likely to be named the starter, actually had better statistics both in running and passing last season. He passed for 844 yards and four touchdowns, completing 48 of 78 attempts. He rushed for 466 yards on 120 attempts, averaging 58 yards. Sanders stands tall in the pocket and although he is a strong option quarterback, he looks like he would fit in perfectly fine playing in a pro-style offense. At times, he seemed to hesitate a bit when deciding to cut up field, but like Hammond, it was his first season getting meaningful playing time. With a season full of starts and playing time under his belt, his confidence and decision-making could improve.
The differences between these two quarterbacks is marginal. In what seems to be a tongue-in-cheek act of trickery, both players are listed at the same playing height and weight of 6’2” and 209 pounds. Anyone would tell you that having two great players to choose from is a great problem to have, but it can turn into a problem if the coaches don’t make a decision. Air Force’s schedule in 2019 is a tale as old as time. An FCS opponent to start, then a week off and a marquis power five game, then two games against vastly different Mountain West opponents, and then straight to Navy to kick off the CiC series.
With such a schedule, leadership and consistency are absolutely critical. Each game will teach us lessons that may not even remotely carry over to the next game. It’s extremely difficult to find a rhythm, and even more difficult if the quarterbacks are splitting a leadership role on the offense.
Indeed, this is a great problem to have. There is even a third quarterback on the depth chart with junior Mike Schmidt who has not seen any playing time aside from a few snaps in the VMI and Utah State games last season. However, the conversation needs to be had that one of these spectacular quarterbacks is going to have to take a supporting role while the other gets to start. I’m sure the decision won’t be easy, but doing so gives Air Force the greatest opportunity for a bowl game and a trip to the White House.