Air Force rising junior tackle A.J. Wallerstein knows there will be pressure on the Falcons' offensive linemen in 2010.
After all, the Falcons return virtually every significant skill-position player from the 2009 season -- both quarterbacks who started games, all players who gained rushing yards and six of the top seven receivers. And Air Force will be in its fourth season running coach Troy Calhoun's offense.
So the only thing seemingly standing in the way of Air Force fielding its best offense in several years is an inexperienced gang up front.
"There's always a little pressure on the offensive line -- this year especially," said Wallerstein, the only returning lineman to log meaningful snaps in games last season. "We're going to need young guys to step up."
Air Force coaches believe they have the bodies and the talent for a good group. Offensive line coach Clay Hendrix said he has more depth than in recent years and that, in general, his players have "longer bodies and move around a little better."
"We're getting a little more talented," he said.
Many of the linemen got plenty of practice snaps last season because they worked with the second-team offense (which receives as many reps as Air Force's starters), and they seemed to improve during 15 spring practices. Now they just need some game seasoning.NOTES, QUOTES
--Tim Jefferson and Connor Dietz, the quarterbacks who made starts for Air F orce in 2009, will be back in the fall.
So will every player who gained yards on the ground -- including top tailback Asher Clark and top fullback Jared Tew -- and six of the Falcons' top seven receivers from last season.
In short, the Falcons have the makings of their best stable of offensive skill position players since 2007, coach Troy Calhoun's first season at the academy.
But there's one problem: Who's going to block for them?
Air Force lost all five of its starting offensive linemen to graduation. Last season's starting tight end was a senior, too.
"I don't know if I've ever had all five gone," said offensive line coach Clay Hendrix, who is entering his 23rd season as a college coach.
Air Force, however, put down the initial foundation for its rebuilt offensive line in its recently completed spring practices. The Falcons, who started spring drills on Feb. 18 and finished on March 16, made strides in 15 sessions.
"I felt good about it," Hendrix said. "We stayed relatively healthy, and we made a little progress each and every day."
Hendrix said senior right tackle Chase Darden (6-3, 255 pounds), junior right guard A.J. Wallerstein (6-4, 285), junior center Michael Hester (6-3, 240) and sophomore left tackle Jason Kons (6-4, 250) established themselves as starters heading into the fall, while senior Tyler Schonsheck (6-1, 265) has a slight lead over sophomore Nick Jackson (6-4, 270) at left guard.
Those who saw the most time with the backups included senior tackle Alex Arndt (6-4, 255), sophomore guard Jordan Eason (6-3, 275), junior center Jeffrey Benson (6-0, 265) and sophomore tackle Chase Douglass (6-6, 265).
--Senior-to-be Ben Cochran, a former quarterback, finished spring listed as the Falcons' backup free safety. Cochran was switched to defense briefly early in 2009 but moved back to quarterback when the Falcons had some injury issues at the position. He remained there the rest of the season and played the majority of Air Force's regular season finale at BYU in relief of starter Tim Jefferson. Cochran, who could help out in nickel and dime packages, also likely will be the Falcons' holder.
--Air Force rising senior Keil Bartholomew was listed as the Falcons' starting punter at the end of spring drills, but coach Troy Calhoun said the competition to replace Brandon Geyer remains wide open. Rising junior Andrew Heard (listed as the backup) and rising sophomore Danny Compton both will have a shot in the fall.
--Rising junior Connor Dietz took most of the spring snaps with the first-team offense as Tim Jefferson was rehabbing his right knee. While Jefferson finished spring listed as the Falcons' top quarterback, Dietz made strides in the spring, especially when it comes to throwing the football.
NG Ryan Gardner -- The biggest hole the Falcons have to fill is at nose guard, where Ben Garland started in 2009. Garland made a team-high 10.5 tackles for losses and was the key to the Falcons' 3-4 defense. But in the spring Gardner established himself as Garland's replacement. "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."
TB Darius Jones -- After playing sparingly as a freshman, Jones had an outstanding spring. He broke a handful of long runs in scrimmage situations and showed good blocking ability. He was listed as Asher Clark's backup at tailback on the post-spring two-deep chart.
SS Brian Lindsay -- The big (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) and physical rising sophomore seems to have the inside track on replacing three-year starter Chris Thomas. Lindsay finished the spring listed as the Falcons starter at strong safety.
CB Josh Hall -- While the rising junior still is rail thin (6-foot, 175), he showed in the spring that he was more than willing to be a physical player. He finished the spring listed as a backup.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I've had offensive lines over the years where we blocked the heck out of people and still gained three yards. Now we have some playmakers. We still want to block people, but now we feel like we don't have to knock everybody down." -- Offensive line coach Clay Hendrix.STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 OUTLOOK: Air Force coach Troy Calhoun has said repeatedly during the last two seasons that the Falcons need to get to the point where the majority of the players on their two-deep chart are juniors and seniors. They're getting there. After spring practices, the Falcons' two-deep chart consisted of 15 seniors (including nine starters), 19 juniors (nine starters) and 10 sophomores (four starters). Air Force has posted three straight seasons with at least eight victories, and it capped off 2009 with a dominating 47-20 victory over Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl. This could be the season Air Force makes a move in the Mountain West Conference.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: There are plenty of pieces in place for the Falcons, who return every back who gained yards in 2009 (including starting tailback Asher Clark and starting fullback Jared Tew), both quarterbacks who started games in 2009 (Tim Jefferson and Connor Dietz) and six of their top seven receivers from last season. But there are question marks aplenty along the offensive line, as the Falcons must replace all five starters. Only rising junior A.J. Wallerstein has meaningful game experience. If the Falcons offensive line can mesh and mature, Air Force could have one of its best offenses in Calhoun's tenure.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Falcons lost three-year starting strong safety Chris Thomas and cornerstone nose guard Ben Garland to graduation, and they lost coordinator Tim DeRuyter to Texas A&M. But they return the most talented secondary the academy has had in recent memory. Before the opener, Air Force must build depth on the defensive line and get its beat-up linebacker corps healthy.
SCOUTING THE SPECIAL TEAMS: One of Air Force's most significant graduation losses will be Brandon Geyer, who was outstanding as a punter last season and also handled the Falcons' holding duties the last three years. While Ben Cochran seems to have won the holding job, the punting spot still is open. Air Force is set at kicker, where Erik Soderberg returns after a stellar debut as a sophomore. The return game should be as good as it's been in a long time with cornerbacks Reggie Rembert and Anthony Wright Jr. returning punts and a bevy of capable players returning kicks, including Jonathan Warzeka, who returned a kickoff for a touchdown in the bowl game.
LB Seth Kline -- According to his high school coach, Dan Eyman, Kline was getting looks from Washington State, Washington and Boise State "a little bit," but Air Force "came along early, and I think they stole him." Eyman said Kline is "physically ready to play."
ATH Dylan Bungum -- A rangy 6-4, 200-pound player, he did a little bit of everything for Triton High in Dodge Center, Minn. He could end up at outside linebacker in the Falcons' 3-4 defense.
K/P Cody Rademacher -- The Westlake High kicker showed he can perform under pressure, drilling a 31-yard field goal in overtime of the Texas Class 5A Division I state title game at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Westlake's opponent, Trinity, then scored a touchdown on its possession in overtime to win the game, but Rademacher's clutch kick remains impressive.
--Quarterback Tim Jefferson did not participate much in spring drills. Jefferson, who started 10 games as a sophomore after being named the 2008 Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year, was recovering from minor knee surgery.
--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. 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.
--Nose guard Bradley Connor was moved to offensive guard before the spring.
Previous Report: 04/11/2010