Coach Troy Calhoun and Defensive Coordinator John Rudzinski need to replace a handful of linebackers from this coming season. From last year’s depth chart, four of the eight linebackers graduated. Therefore, some upperclassmen must step up. Of course, the possibility that incoming freshmen will also be able to fill those starting and backup roles.
For now, we will address the most likely composition of the Falcon linebacking corps.
Kyle Johnson, ILB
Out of both inside linebackers and both outside linebackers, Kyle Johnson is the only listed starter that is a senior. This puts Johnson in a direct leadership position of both the linebacker position group and the defense as a whole. From Jacksonville, Florida, Johnson is listed at a solid 6-foot-0, 220 pounds...a typical size for a service academy linebacker.
As a sophomore in 2017, Johnson appeared in all 12 games primarily on special teams. The following year, he truly broke out and had an outstanding year. Johnson recorded 70 tackles in just 10 games, including 7.5 tackles-for-loss. In addition, he made one interception which he took back 32 yards for his first career touchdown.
Expectations are extremely high for Johnson, for he will be responsible for his own production as well as ensuring his less-experienced teammates are in the right position prior to each snap. Fellow senior, Price Morgan, is listed right behind Johnson on the depth chart. Morgan got into the last 10 games of 2018, recording six tackles on the year.
Demonte Meeks, ILB
Demonte Meeks, a junior, is the other starting linebacker on the Falcon’s depth chart. It appears as though this spot is not set. A sophomore and former multi-star recruit, Thadius Blackman, is closely behind Meeks and could very well win the job prior to the first game. Also, Price Morgan could slide over from behind Johnson. Lastly, Christopher Musselman, another senior who is not on the depth chart, may still be in the discussion.
But for now, Meeks has the job. Hailing from Maple Heights, Ohio, Meeks saw experience in 11 games in the 2018 season. Of note, he started the final two against Wyoming and Colorado State. He will have his work cut out for him with the men behind him fighting for his job, but I believe Meeks will ultimately be the starter come August 31st.
The outside linebacker position for the Air Force Falcons is a little more complicated. Lokata Wills, a junior, should be the clear-cut starter on at least one side this coming season. Back in 2017, Wills started seven games a freshman. Starting as a freshman at a service academy is incredibly impressive due to the fact that they are not able to prepare during the summer like freshmen at other Division 1 schools, let alone even the same as their upperclass teammates. As you’d expect, he started during his sophomore campaign as well, however he missed a handful of games due to injury. As many know, the most common injury is re-injury, and many players get categorized as “injury prone”. This stereotype is made for a reason. Will Wills be healthy all season? If so, the Falcons will be in a good spot.
On the other side, another junior is listed as a starter, but this one has much less experience. Parker Noren, a 6-foot-2, 210 pound linebacker from McKinney, Texas is set to oppose Wills as the other outside linebacker. Noren has two starts under his belt. There is a solid chance Grant Donaldson, another junior, could win the spot over Noren. Donaldson is listed as the backup for both Noren and Wills.
Overall, the Air Force linebacker situation is typical of a team who lost many defensive players. Fortunately for the Falcons, they have some solid players on the defensive line. If they can all stay healthy, the front seven should be solid, and will make life difficult for opposing offenses in the Mountain West.