Air Force opens its Spring Practice sessions this Thursday.
So, technically, I guess they’re “Winter Practice” sessions.
Regardless, here are the top five questions facing the Falcons as they get started:
1) Who will start on the offensive line?
Air Force returns both quarterbacks who started games in 2009, six of its top seven receivers and every player who gained yards for the nation’s third-ranked rushing attack (283.5 yards per game).
But who’s going to block for them?
The offensive line that paved the way for the Falcons in 2009 was comprised of five seniors (and starting tight end Sean Quintana was a senior, too). Sophomore A.J. Wallerstein is the only returning linemen who saw much time last season (he played about 30-40 snaps a game), so competition for starting spots will be “pretty wide open,” coach Troy Calhoun said.
Competing for time at center will be sophomores Michael Hester and Jeffrey Benson; at guard, in addition to Wallerstein, will be sophomore Kevin Whitt and juniors Tyler Schonsheck and Bradley Connor (moved from the defensive line); and at tackle, juniors Chase Darden and Alex Arndt will get chances along with sophomore Blake Dowd and freshman Jason Kons.
“We’ve got good bodies there, and they’re guys that like football, too,” Calhoun said. “They’re guys that love to lift, that like to practice and that’s why spring ball’s going to be key for them.”
2) Can the defense fill some big shoes?
On and off the field.
Air Force’s 2009 defense was one of the best in academy history. But the Falcons will have to replace several key players who are set to graduate, including nose guard Ben Garland (team-high 10.5 tackles for losses), three-year starting safety Chris Thomas and inside linebackers John Falgout and Justin Moore, the 2009 team’s top two tacklers.
The Falcons also lost defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who left to become the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. Matt Wallerstedt has been promoted to defensive coordinator. Calhoun said he thought the transition would be fairly seamless.
3) Who replaces Brandon Geyer?
One of the more unsung yet key players for the Falcons in recent seasons was Geyer.
He was near-perfect for three seasons as Air Force’s holder and in 2009 was a field position-altering weapon as a punter, averaging 43.0 yards per boot with the kind of hang time that allowed Air Force’s coverage unit to swarm returners. Of his 48 punts, 17 pinned opponents inside their 20-yard lines.
Now the Falcons have to find someone else to handle those thankless jobs. Junior Keil Bartholomew will be one of the candidates to take over as the Falcons’ punter after serving as Geyer’s backup in 2009. But Calhoun said the punting competition is “wide, wide open.”
One player who could get a shot at punting is Ben Cochran, a reserve quarterback in 2009 who will be playing safety in the spring. Cochran might be Air Force’s holder, too. He was the backup holder in 2009.
4) How much will Jefferson participate?
Sophomore quarterback Tim Jefferson had surgery to repair the meniscus in his right knee on Jan. 27 after playing with the injury for almost the entire 2009 season. Jefferson said his rehabilitation is going well and he has close to full range-of-motion. But he could be “a little bit limited,” Calhoun said, in the spring.
If Jefferson cannot play, look for sophomore quarterback Connor Dietz to take snaps with the starters and freshmen Justin Smith and Tucker Tipton to play with the reserves.
5) Which freshmen will emerge?
In the spring of 2008, then-freshman Kevin Fogler went from unknown junior varsity player to the surprise of spring drills. And there are several freshmen who could emerge and make that kind of leap this spring. Among them: Diminutive tailbacks Cody Getz and Darius Jones; safety Brian Lindsay; inside linebackers James Chambers and Brian Corcoran.