It may sound hyperbolic to say that the cornerbacks and safeties are the most critical members of the Air Force defense, but there is really no other way to say it going into this season.
Facing off against high powered passing offenses like Colorado, Boise State, and Fresno State could be devastating without competent DBs. While it’s up for debate as to whether or not Air Force’s defensive line is as undersized as it has been in the past, Air Force’s opponents have offensive lines with players that are too large to replicate with a practice squad in a preparation scenario. Because of this, it’s an integral part of planning to find non-traditional means of collapsing the pocket and slowing down passing offenses.
In the cornerback and safety position, however, there are no tricks. You can’t find creative means of shutting down a one on one matchup. It’s simply a head to head battle all game. Luckily for Air Force, the DBs are arguably the strongest players on the defense.
Milton ‘Tre’ Bugg III
Returning for his junior year, Tre looks to follow up a productive 2018 with significant playing time in all twelve games and four starts. He tallied 13 solo tackles and helped out on 7 more. He’s a speedy player who contains wide receivers well. He seems to have a high football IQ, as an eyeball test of his film shows his ability to prevent yards after the catch. Although Zane Lewis probably edges out Tre as the number one DB, I expect he will have a great season.
Had I not checked for myself, I would have been surprised to hear Zane Lewis only had one interception last year. The returning senior did break up six big passes in 2018, but his playing style makes for a long highlight reel. The 6’1” Richmond, Virginia native uses his height and vertical jump to his advantage and is a prime candidate for matchups against the top wide receivers in the Mountain West. He has proven his mettle with receivers being target by quarterbacks like Brett Rypien, formerly Boise State’s quarterback and current Denver Bronco; Utah State’s Jordan Love, who is in the discussion for a first round pick in the 2020 draft; and Army’s Kelvin Hopkins Jr. With his wealth of experience on his side, Zane Lewis may put up and incredible season
Returning for his final season of Falcon football, Grant Theil has the potential to be a highly disruptive player as a strong safety. He forced a fumble and reeled in an interception in his first start of 2018 against New Mexico and recorded 17 tackles on the season. I am excited about the prospect of Grant embracing his starting role from day one and expect him to emerge as a workhorse in protecting against the deep ball.
Jeremy is another senior with a ton of experience. He has played in every game since his sophomore year and started in every game last season except for the Colorado State game due to a targeting call in the prior game. I may be so bold as to say that Jeremy is heading in the direction of capping off his career with a senior season that could make a case for him being inducted into the Air Force Academy’s Athletics Hall of Fame. He was named honorable mention All-Mountain West, but he was also named First Team All-Colorado by the National Football Foundation. In 2018 alone, he tallied three interceptions, a blocked punt against Army, and he ranked eighth in the Mountain West with 104 tackles. He is the first Falcon with over 100 tackles since 2014 and the first Air Force DB with more than 100 tackles since 2008. Considering that Air Force will be playing a tough schedule, including Colorado, Boise State, Fresno State, and Utah State, he should have plenty of opportunities to surpass his previous seasons’ statistics.
If you watched any Air Force football in 2018, chances are pretty good you heard Garrett Kauppila’s name mentioned. He’s well known for his contributions to the Air Force Academy off the field in various leadership roles, but that’s not to say that he isn’t a fantastic safety. Garrett is listed second on the depth chart at both free safety and strong safety. He’s battled injury in the past, which led him to only seeing action in eight games in 2018, but Garrett’s leadership, outlook, and playing ability make him a versatile addition to the defense. I expect to see him making a big impact on the field in 2019, especially in the bigger games.
The Palm Brothers
It may be slightly gauche for me to lump in these players who have earned their spots on the depth chart as much as anyone else, but I really can’t help myself. It’s not everyday you see twin brothers on the same team, much less at a service academy. Interestingly enough, both Elijah and Elisha saw playing time in five games last season, but neither recorded a stat. They are only juniors, so it’s reasonable to say that they are by no means behind the curve, but looking to 2020, they are certainly in good hands playing behind the starting corners for Air Force this season.
I’ll admit it. I’m very confident in our defensive backs this season. At Mountain West Media Days, Troy Calhoun said this may be Air Force’s toughest schedule ever. Now that’s highly debatable if we look back to 1970 when Air Force played #9 Missouri, #6 Stanford, Oregon, Arizona, and ended up in the Sugar Bowl against #4 Tennessee, but the point does remain that this season holds some very difficult opponents. If I had to pick which side of the ball is most up for the challenge, I believe it’s the defense, and I’m excited to see what our defensive backs especially can do.