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Air Force's investment in young roster could pay dividends in upcoming football seasons

Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, on the sidelines during a football game against Army at Michie Stadium in West Point, N.Y., Nov. 3, 2018.

JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

By BRENT BRIGGEMAN | The Gazette | Published: November 24, 2018

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — In the hall outside Air Force's locker room at San Diego State in mid-October, Cole Fagan lamented an attempted stiff-arm that whiffed.

It had been the fullback's first time to break free in the open field. He served primarily as a defensive player in high school and rarely played during his first two years at Air Force, so this was new. He was brought down after 42 yards.

The next week the junior found himself in the open field again at UNLV. This time Fagan made a move and scooted 49 yards for a touchdown.

Three weeks later, Fagan ran for a career-best 98 yards. He hit 100 the next week, going for 116 at Wyoming.

On Saturday, he ran for 260 — the third-best in program history and tops for fullbacks.

"What he's developed in running skill has been neat to see," Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said.

It's that kind of progress that the Falcons hope to take from a season of near misses that the team ultimately hopes that will be chalked up to growing pains. The team lost seven games, but none by more than 10 points. The average margin in those defeats was 6.2 points.

But the team found a quarterback in sophomore Donald Hammond III. Junior backup Isaiah Sanders will also return. It started just one senior on the offensive line. The top two tacklers — junior safety Jeremy Fejedelem and junior linebacker Kyle Johnson — will return, as will 13 of the top 20 tacklers. Both tailbacks — sophomore Kade Remsberg and junior Joseph Saucier -- will return. Tight end Kade Waguespack is a junior, as are Fagan and his two top backups at fullback. Junior receiver Geraud Sanders didn't start a game this year, but he's played in 22 games in his career with two starts and has 23 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns. So Air Force won't be starting from scratch in replacing Marcus Bennett the way it was when Jalen Robinette departed two years ago.

The other spots to replace are left guard (Griffin Landrum), slot receiver (Ronald Cleveland/Andrew Smith) and defensive end (Micah Capra).

"We have so much potential," Fejedelem said. "We've just got to have all the pieces put together. You can't go in overconfident, but I think we'll come in confident. We have a lot of people returning. A lot of young people that got a lot of playing time this year, which is so helpful for your development."

Fejedelem understands how important that experience can be. He broke into the starting lineup as a sophomore and made 34 tackles.

This year, as a junior, he led the team with 104 stops and three interceptions.

"It would have been better if they were wins," Fejedelem said of close losses for a team that will likely miss a bowl game by one victory. "But it helps your development if you're in those close games as a young player. I know just coming into this year as a junior compared to last year as a sophomore, the game slows down so much. It's huge for those players to get all that experience."

Among the sophomores to start this year were defensive tackle Jordan Jackson, outside linebackers Lakota Wills, Parker Noreen and Grant Donaldson, cornerback Tre' Bugg, inside linebacker Demonte Meeks, left tackle Parker Ferguson, left guard Nolan Laufenberg, Hammond, Remsberg and Saucier.

Freshmen like receiver David Cormier, outside linebacker Brandon Gooding, defensive lineman Nakoa Pauole, slot receiver Brandon Lewis will be among the newcomers ready to make a push for large roles in spring practice. History shows that others will certainly emerge for a team always loaded in numbers.

Hammond outlined plans for the offseason after playing four full games this year.

"Watching a lot of film on our opponents for next year, and also from this year," Hammond said. "In those close losses, what we did wrong. Just try to fix those mistakes and make the team better in every way."

The frustrations this year were many. Slow starts left the team attempting comebacks in multiple games that fell just short (the Falcons outscored their opponents 64-49 in the second halves of their first four losses). Indecision among the coaches as to who should play at quarterback hurt the offensive continuity. Play calling down the stretch didn't help in crushing losses at Army and Wyoming — one costing the Falcons the Commander-in-Chief's trophy, the other a bowl game.

But the rushing defense was shored up after being a major weakness a year ago, providing the foundation that could lead to improvements in other defensive areas. Hammond's effectiveness and diverse skill set that unlocks the offense's full potential could prove to be a critical development. The combinations at fullback (Fagan/Taven Birdow) and tailback (Remsberg/Saucier) are experienced and explosive. The new academy rules that helped linemen bulk up this year should help again next year as the team finds more ways to utilize those guidelines to its advantage.

The construction of this roster indicates that the window of opportunity is about to open, leaving this year to potentially be seen down the road as one where the short-term pains were suffered in sacrifice for future successes.

At least that's the hope.

"That depends on how the next one or two years go," Fagan said, "but hopefully."

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© 2018 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
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