The Air Force Falcons were the first in the MWC to break out the pads for spring drills this year, getting underway in balmy mid-February in Colorado Springs (average February high: 44). Troy Calhoun replaced one coach on each side of the ball, but the transitions should have been relatively easy, as neither departed coach was exclusively responsible for the team's schemes.
AFA returns every player from 2009 that carried the ball- an astonishing fact, given the Falcons' reliance on its ground game to move the ball. It seems therefore a given that coach Calhoun will be focusing not ballcarriers this spring, but on both lines, where the Falcons are practically holding an open tryout for starters. The entire 2009 starting o-line graduated, as did two of the three d-linemen.
So the first, and biggest, spring question at the Academy this year was: will backups Chase Darden, A.J. Wallerstein, Michael Hester, Tyler Schonsheck, and Blake Dowd cut the mustard up front for the offense? Similarly, will Wylie Wikstrom (DE) and Ryan Gardner (DT) nail down the starting snaps this month?
Some Academy watchers think that the complete turnover on the o-line will not be as disruptive as a similar event would be at another school. That none of the '09 backups were freshmen may indicate that the new starts will bring significant experience to their starts in 2010. Whether or not that is true, the jury is out on the beef up front until September.
Until then, it looks like four of the five spots up front on offense are filled: LT Jason Kons (freshman 6-4, 250), C Michael Hester (sophomore, 6-3, 240), RG A. J. Wallerstein (sophomore, 6-4, 285) and RT Chase Darden (junior, 6-3, 255). The left guard spot may go to Tyler Schonsheck (junior, 6-1, 265), but his competition with Nick Jackson (freshman, 6-4, 270) is ongoing. Look for the Academy's o-line recruits Jacob Ehm (6-6, 245), Joe Frank (6-4, 290), Drew Kerber (6-3, 280), Tristian Turknett (6-2, 287), Jake Welch (6-3, 290), and Charlie Zemko (6-3, 250) as backups, at most, in 2010. More likely, given the youth ahead of them on the two-deep, they'll not surface in games for another year.
On defense, Ryan Gardner and Wylie Wikstrom do appear to have secured the top spots on the chart at DT and DE. Both had exemplary springs. Elsewhere, only S Chris Thomas and LB John Falgout leave large holes in the team's production, to be filled by younger players. Phil Ofili and Brian Corcoran may replace Thomas and Falgout. Reports out of spring were very positive about the Falcons' secondary, though the lineup to replace Thomas remains unsettled.
The surprise out of spring is how strong quarterback Connor Dietz showed-- so much so that one cannot say Tim Jefferson is the clear starter going into fall drills. This kind of competition has to be good for the Academy, however, and may surpass the emergence of a starting o-line (which may be largely complete) as the top story for the team this August.
The 2010 schedule, recently out, features a blockbuster conference showdown in week two against BYU, in Colorado Springs. This is precisely the kind of battle that plays well in the Falcons' hands; they'll throw their experienced, difficult ground attack and speedy defense at the Cougar's new starting quarterback and defensive line. Bronco Mendenhall has to be sweating those matchups already. An upset in week two may signal another year in which the Academy muscles its way into the league's top three.