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Air Force's lineup coming into focus with season-opener approaching

Ronald Cleveland, U.S. Air Force Academy Football Team wide receiver, celebrates with teammates and fans at Falcon Stadium, U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado on Oct. 1, 2016.

DENNIS HOFFMAN/U.S. AIR FORCE

By BRENT BRIGGEMAN | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: August 28, 2018

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — Ronald Cleveland said he grew a bit emotional in Saturday’s closed practice, realizing his senior season was finally upon him.

“I had butterflies thinking about it,” said Air Force’s senior slot receiver. “No more scrimmaging each other, we’re about to play another team.

"It's crazy that this will be my last first game."

As the Falcons enter their final days of preparation before Saturday’s opener against Stony Brook at Falcon Stadium, clarity is beginning to form at most of the key position battles.

Arion Worthman will likely open as the starting quarterback. Joseph Saucier continues to lead at tailback, with Nolan Eriksen and Kade Remsberg next in line. Jacob Stafford is at fullback, Kade Waguespack at tight end and Marcus Bennett at wide receiver.

Cleveland, who is recovering from a hamstring injury suffered in the third practice, is behind fellow senior Garrett Amy. It would be a surprise if Cleveland – with 10 career touchdowns, 8.8 yards per carry (on 66 attempts) and 28.2 yards per reception (on 15 catches) – doesn’t eventually return to his featured role at that spot. But he isn’t so sure.

“We’re pretty deep at that spot,” Cleveland said. “Even our freshman, once they get the plays down, could play.”

The offensive line is where Air Force will see the most change. The current starting lineup is sophomore left tackle Parker Ferguson, sophomore left guard Nolan Laufenberg of Castle Rock, junior center Connor Vikupitz, senior right guard Griffin Landrum and junior right tackle Scott Hattock.

Of that group (all of whom weigh 280-plus pounds), only Landrum – the lone returning starter – was listed with the first team following spring practice.

But offensive line coach Steed Lobotzke, who rotated nine linemen in last year’s season finale against Utah State, said the group that runs out for the second series may vary widely from the starting lineup.

“We’re going to try to play as many guys as we can, as long as they’re worthy of it,” Lobotzke said. “As long as the talent level is equal, the knowledge is equal, we’ll play multiple guys at a spot so we can stay fresh. I think it’s good for morale in the room. I think it keeps guys pushed and focused.”

Of those nine linemen to play against Utah State, only Hattock and Landrum are back.

“We have something to prove,” Vikupitz said. “Throughout spring ball I feel like we were kind of the lacking piece because we were all pretty young. … We came back to fall camp and I think we really picked it up.”

Defensively, the front seven has remained unchanged throughout fall camp. Jordan Jackson, Mosese Fifita and Micah Capra occupy the defensive line, Brody Bagnall and Kyle Johnson are at inside linebacker and Lakota Wills and Kyle Floyd are at the outside linebacker positions.

In a shifted-around secondary, it’s Garrett Kauppila and Jeremy Fejedelem at safety, while seniors Robert Bullard and Dailen Sutton are currently on top of a fluid battle at cornerback.

“It’s been a long summer,” Cleveland said. “I’m ready to start playing football, hitting somebody else.”

With lineups gaining focus and the top groups taking far more reps in practice, we finally have a good idea of who will be doing that hitting for Air Force.

©2018 The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.)
Visit The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) at www.gazette.com
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Air Force's Ronald Cleveland breaks through the defense during the Navy-Air Force football game at Annapolis, Md., Oct. 7, 2017. Cleveland caught two passes for 65 yards.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES

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