Air Force Rebuilds: Six Headlines From Spring Practices

Jake SchallerContributor IMarch 18, 2010

1. Falcons Begin Rebuilding Offensive Line

And it’s a big rebuilding job.

Air Force lost all five of its 2009 starters to graduation.

Clay Hendrix, the Falcons’ offensive line coach, is heading into his 23rd season as a college coach, but said, “I don’t know if I’ve ever had all five gone.”

Still, Hendrix is optimistic about his neophyte offensive line, and was encouraged by the progress it made during the Falcons’ spring practices, which concluded on Tuesday.

“I felt good about it,” Hendrix said. “We stayed relatively healthy, and we made a little progress each and every day.”

Hendrix said junior right tackle Chase Darden (6'3", 255 pounds), sophomore right guard A.J. Wallerstein (6'4", 285 pounds), sophomore center Michael Hester (6'3", 240 pounds), and freshman left tackle Jason Kons (6'4", 250 pounds) established themselves as starters heading into the fall, while junior Tyler Schonsheck (6'1", 265 pounds) holds a slight lead over freshman Nick Jackson (6'4", 270 pounds) at left guard.

Among those who saw the most time with the backups were junior tackle Alex Arndt (6'4", 255 pounds), freshman guard Jordan Eason (6'3", 275 pounds), sophomore center Jeffrey Benson (6'0", 265 pounds), and freshman tackle Chase Douglass (6'6", 265 pounds).

The linemen clearly lack game experience, as only Wallerstein has logged substantial snaps. But Hendrix notes that most of the projected starters played last season with the second-team offense, which gets about as many snaps in practice as the Falcons’ starting unit.

In addition, Hendrix said he has more depth this year, something that can only lead to increased competition. Additionally, he stated that these linemen have “longer bodies and move around a little better...We’re getting a little more talented.”

Also helping, Hendrix said, will be the talent in the backfield. Starting tailback Asher Clark and starting fullback Jared Tew are proven vets, and freshmen tailbacks Cody Getz and Darius Jones both turned heads in the spring.

“I’ve had offensive lines over the years where we blocked the heck out of people and still gained three yards,” Hendrix said. “Now we have some playmakers. We still want to block people, but now we feel like we don’t have to knock everybody down.”


2. Gardner Emerges

Other than rebuilding its offensive line, Air Force’s most pressing concern heading into spring practices was replacing standout nose tackle Ben Garland, who in 2009 made a team-high 10.5 tackles for losses. He also consistently freed up linebackers by gobbling up space and blockers.

Despite the loss of Garland, the Falcons seem to have found a replacement in sophomore Ryan Gardner.

“Ryan Gardner had a very good spring,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “He’s not near the size that Ben Garland was, but he’s got good quickness, and he’s got very good flexibility in his knees and his hips. He uses his hands exceptionally well, and he’s going to be a good player these next two years.”


3. LBs on the IR

Air Force appeared precariously thin at linebacker during the spring. Inside linebacker Ken Lamendola, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in the fifth game of the 2009 season, had another knee surgery and missed all the spring sessions—he was watching from a wheel chair at one of the practices.

Inside linebacker Brady Amack missed time after spraining an MCL. And outside linebackers Patrick Hennessey (shoulder) and Alex Means (foot), both of whom started games in 2009, missed all of spring while recovering from injuries.

“We had some guys that missed some reps that really probably could have benefited by going through more spring ball,” Calhoun said. “We’ve got to find guys that are dependable and durable.”


4. No Verdict at Punter

The competition to replace outgoing punter Brandon Geyer remains wide open. The top candidates appear to be junior Keil Bartholomew, sophomore Air Academy graduate Andrew Heard, and freshman kicker Danny Compton, who added punting to his duties in the spring.

“There are times where one day one guy punts real well and then he might disappear for a day,” Calhoun said. “So we still have a few guys that are going to battle for the punt spot, and that’ll go for a while.”


5. Dietz Improves Passing

Sophomore quarterback Connor Dietz took snaps with the first team offense as sophomore Tim Jefferson, who was recovering from knee surgery, was mostly held out of practices. Dietz showed off an improved passing ability during the spring.

Calhoun said the quarterback’s release was quicker, and his accuracy was. slightly better. “It’s got to be much better,” Calhoun said. Calhoun also said Dietz’s passes had more velocity.


6. Backups Continue to Improve

Several players who spent 2009 in backup roles made strides in the spring. Among them: junior tight end Chaz Demerath, sophomore cornerback Josh Hall, freshman strong safety Brian Lindsay, and a trio of defensive ends—junior Wylie Wikstrom, sophomore Ben Kopacka, and sophomore Zach Payne.