Position battles coming into focus for Air Force with opener looming

The U.S. Air Force Academy football team rallies together to pump each other up before the Air Force vs. Navy game at Falcon Stadium at the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo., Oct. 1, 2016.


By BRENT BRIGGEMAN | The Gazette (Tribune News Service) | Published: August 23, 2017

Cody Gessler’s coaches say he plays with a chip on his shoulder, and the nose guard readily agrees.

Being constantly seen as undersized – 5-foot-10, 260 pounds – can make anyone a little salty.

But the Air Force junior put his anger to the side when reflecting on what is coming soon. After seeing no playing time for two years, not even a special teams snap or late-in-a-blowout cameo, he’s likely to tackle a large role in the opener against Virginia Military Institute on Sept. 2.

“I’m pretty fired up about it,” said Gessler, who figures to share time with Mosese Fifita, who is now officially listed at 320 pounds – underscoring Gessler’s status as undersized. “Finally I can get out on the field and show everybody what I’ve been working this hard for over these past few years and cut it loose.”

Gessler’s is a common story on this team after the departure of 32 seniors, including all but one starter on defense. The battle to fill those gaps started well before spring ball, and now the roles are starting to come into focus.

Coach Troy Calhoun said most spots for the opener will not be determined until early next week, but traditionally the team that is practicing in the days after the final Saturday scrimmage in August is the one you’ll see in the opener.

If that holds, expect to see a defensive backfield of Garrett Kauppila (free safety), Kyle Floyd (strong safety), Robert Bullard (cornerback) and Marquis Griffin (cornerback). Up front, Cody Moorhead and Micah Capra will rotate at defensive tackle, while Kyler Ehm may see some action at nose guard with Gessler and Fifita. Ja’Mel Sanders seems to have held off Shaq Vereen at the spur linebacker spot and Matt Evans never let go of his grip on the bandit linebacker position. Grant Ross, the lone returner, and Jack Flor were never in question at middle linebacker. Finally, Santo Coppola brings a wealth of experience at defensive end.

Of that group Capra, Ehm, Fifita, Gessler and Kaupila have never seen varsity action. Evans hasn’t played since 2015. Sanders has never recorded a tackle.

Offensively, the only starting position truly in flux remains so, as Marcus Bennett, Jake Matkovich and Geraud Sanders continue to duke it out at wide receiver. Offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen believes that spot will solidify only as the season plays out.

Bennett has seen most of the first-team action in practice.

The nerves of the newcomers may hit as game time approaches, but right now it’s pure excitement.

“I’m giddy just thinking about it,” said Kauppila, who has been locked in a battle with James Jones IV to replace Brodie Hicks at free safety. “It’s exciting to be able to be able to play again, just have it be real.”

Kauppila’s last action in a game came when he tore his ACL in high school. He said his family will be in from California to watch the opener.

Gessler comes in prepared – to a point. He played 16 games both as a high school junior and senior for Katy High School near Houston, a program that regularly earns high national rankings and just built a $72 million stadium.

Still, it’s been a while.

“I can’t tell you how anxious I am,” Gessler said. “It’s been a long wait, but it’s finally coming – 11 more days.”

©2017 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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