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2021 Air Force football preview: Can the Falcons rebound from a rocky season?

Defensive turnbacks are a thing of the past, and Haaziq Daniels is back under center, but the returning offense is largely a mystery.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 06 Navy at Air Force Photo by Kyle Emery/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We all remember how the 2020 Air Force football campaign started — with a dominant win over Navy to jump into the lead for the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy. For a brief, shining moment, it looked like the mountain of pandemic-related turnbacks wouldn’t be so hard to summit. After all, this was a Falcons squad missing tested starters in Demonte Meeks, Jordan Jackson, and Milton “Tre” Buggs III, all stalwarts on defense.

The offensive side of the ball appeared to be in good shape, returning key linemen and skill players alike. A Donald Hammond-shaped hole sat under center, but sophomore Haaziq Daniels stepped up admirably for six touchdowns and more than 700 yards of total offense.

Unfortunately, Daniels and the rest of the offense could not overcome the turnover bug, and the remaining questions reared their ugly heads as the Falcons fought hard to finish with a 3-3 record, complete with two canceled games against Wyoming and Colorado State. Air Force added impressive wins over New Mexico and Utah State to their resume, before ending the season with a disappointing loss at Army.

Luckily for the Falcons, the 2021 season is already shaping up a bit differently. Turnbacks are not an issue this time around, which means that the missing starters from last season are right back into the fold. Meeks, Jackson and Buggs are back to lead what should be a strong unit. Air Force also has a full slate of games scheduled to kick off against Lafayette at home on Sept. 4.

With changes in mind, let’s take a look at both sides of the ball.

Air Force 2021 Offense

We know a few things when it comes to Air Force’s offense in 2021. For starters, Haaziq Daniels is back at quarterback. We’ve already mentioned his 2020 stats, but it will be key to see how he develops after more of a normal offseason. He should have a few reliable targets back in tight end Kyle Patterson and tailback Brad Roberts. Patterson led the team with 205 receiving yards in 2020 while Roberts topped the charts on the ground with 461 yards of his own.

Daniels will also have do-it-all man Brandon Lewis back, who nabbed 182 yards receiving and 79 yards rushing in limited action.

The largest question facing the Falcons early in 2021 lies on the offensive line. All five starters — including two with NFL potential — who launched the campaign against Navy in 2020 are gone. Who replaces them in a mystery, as we have only a preseason depth chart to suggest who will be in their place. On the bright side, four of the five names listed are either juniors or seniors, and there are no freshmen listed on the two-deep chart. Hawk Wimmer has the best name of the bunch by far, and he figures to be a major presence, checking in at 6-foot-4 and 330 pounds. At guard, Isaac Cochran is one of the more experienced of the bunch, as he played in 11 games during Air Force’s strong 2019 season.

Air Force 2021 Defense

We’ve lamented the turnbacks from the 2020 season to no end, but now Air Force has some key faces back in the fold. Jordan Jackson figures to be the keystone of the defensive line, bringing with him 38 tackles from the 2019 season. He’ll be joined by relative unknowns in Elijah Brockman and Christopher Herrera, both juniors.

Fellow returner Demonte Meeks should fill a similar role in the linebacking corps, as it’s impossible to ignore his whopping 98 tackles from the 2019 season. He’s likely to start on the inside alongside last year’s leading tackler in Noah Bush, which can only mean good things for Troy Calhoun’s defense.

Corvan Taylor is back as the starting free safety, and he should build on a solid junior season where he tallied 33 tackles. Tre Buggs III is the most important name at cornerback, and the Falcons will need to establish something of a no-fly zone. The team managed just five interceptions in its six games last season, four of which came in victories.

Air Force 2021 Special Teams

Air Force punted just 16 times throughout the 2020 season, and it returns Charles Bein as a newly minted starter. Bein contributed just two of those punts, but he should have a chance to grow comfortable in the role given regular playing time. If the Falcons can keep their per-game average at the same level this year, there shouldn’t be too much to worry about for Bein.

Brice Honaker currently sits atop the place kicking list, though he primarily handled kickoff duties in the 2020 season. Tevye Schuettpelz-Rohl took care of the field goal attempts, making five of his nine tries. It’s fair to expect Air Force to keep a similar setup this year, but we should get a better idea during the opener against Lafayette.

There are three long snappers listed on the roster in senior Jacob Goldberg, junior Brendan Bentley and sophomore J. Frank Melgarejo III. Goldberg started all six games last season, while Bentley appeared in three.

Opener: Air Force vs Lafayette

Where: Falcon Stadium, Colorado Springs, Colorado

When: September 4, 2021, at 12 p.m. MT (2 p.m. ET)

Watch: Stadium

What to know: If there’s one team on the schedule that Air Force shouldn’t have to worry about, it’s Lafayette. We’re not talkin’ Ragin’ Cajuns. Instead, we’re talking Lafayette Leopards, of the FCS. This is the one game Air Force has to iron out the early season butterflies against a team that went 2-1 with wins over Colgate and Lehigh. Look for the Falcons to pick up some early points in this matchup and cycle in some depth players.

Other key games

September 11 at Navy: Air Force started hot last year against Navy, and cruised to a 40-7 domination. Navy will have that beatdown in mind as the Falcons head to Annapolis, with Diego Fagot back once again as the heart of the Midshipmen defense. It will be important to see how Navy deals with the dismissal of fullback Jamale Carothers.

Oh yeah, and it’s also when Air Force will show off its latest APLS uniforms, as seen above.

October 9 at New Mexico: New Mexico shouldn’t be too daunting of a foe (the Falcons topped the Lobos 28-0 in 2020), but this game marks the true start of the Mountain West season for Air Force. The Falcons may be looking ahead to the tougher games on the schedule, so this may offer a look at some depth if the Falcons nab an early lead.

October 16 at Boise State: If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. It’s an old cliché, but it rings true in college football. The Broncos figure to be at the top of the pack once again, but Air Force gave Boise State all it could handle last year, despite losing 49-30.