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Ground rules: Run-heavy Air Force looks to get back on track

(AP Photo/David Zalubowski, File)

By PAT GRAHAM

AP Sports Writer

AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. (AP) Obviously, a second straight 5-7 season didn't sit well with the Air Force Falcons.

Quick for them to point out, though, was this little tidbit: Of the seven losses, five were by eight points or less.

"We were right there in a lot of games," said senior defensive back Jeremy Fejedelem, who led the team with 104 tackles. "That's really a one-play difference. One play. You get to that last play and realize the game of football is truly a game of inches."

It marked the first time since coach Troy Calhoun took over before the 2007 season that the Falcons have missed a bowl in back-to-back years.

Again, that doesn't sit well.

"Last year, we were a lot better team than we showed," senior linebacker Kyle Johnson said. "We're confident. We're confident every year. Hopefully, we show how good we truly are."

The Falcons return seven players on defense and seven more on offense. They certainly have experience back at quarterback after Donald Hammond III and Isaiah Sanders split time last season. Hammond rushed for a team-best nine touchdowns while Sanders, who went to high school in Colorado Springs, finished third on the team in rushing with 466 yards. He also threw for 844 yards and four scores.

"We'll be a late-blooming team," said Calhoun, who's gone to nine bowl games since becoming the coach at the Academy. "We just have to see when that is. If we can stay healthy, we'll be better in the back half of the season than we will today."

For the first time since 1974, Air Force will face Colorado on the football field. The Falcons travel to Folsom Field on Sept. 14 to resume a series in which the Buffaloes have won five straight. Air Force's last victory was on Nov. 23, 1968.

"We have huge expectations for the season," Fejedelem said. "We have a lot of talent."

Things to know before the Falcons start the season on Aug. 31 by hosting Colgate:

TACKLE MACHINE

It's no surprise Fejedelem was an all-Mountain West preseason pick. The player nicknamed "Fej" is coming off a season in which he became the first Falcons defensive back to surpass 100 tackles since Chris Thomas registered 107 in 2008. Fejedelem also had three interceptions.

Expecting another 100-tackle season?

"I don't go into the season, `Oh, I want 100 tackles,'" Fejedelem said. "I want the team to win. Team success."

For advice, he leans on his older brother, Clayton, who's a safety for the Cincinnati Bengals.

"A lot of times it's joking around and not talking about football and just catching up," Fejedelem said. "If I do have questions, I go to him. He helps me out."

SPUR OF THE MOMENT

The Falcons have a position on defense they call "Spur," which is a hybrid linebacker/safety. The player has to be versatile enough to cover tight ends and occasionally rush.

The leading candidates to fill the spot are Garrett Kauppila and Grant Theil. Kauppila was limited to eight games due to an injury. He had 35 tackles.

GROUND GAME

Fullback Cole Fagan was removed from the team in the wake of an ongoing Academy investigation. Fagan, who rushed for 997 yards last season, remains a cadet at the school. Christian Mallard and Taven Birdow figure to be running the fullback dive in the triple-option offense. The speedy Kadin Remsberg returns to the backfield after a 583-yard campaign.

SIZE ON THE LINE

At 330 pounds, nose guard Mosese Fifita (pronounced mo-SESS-a FUH-fee-tuh) is one of the bigger defensive linemen Air Force has had. The senior from Snohomish, Washington, had one sack last season. Joining him up front will be Jordan Jackson, who's listed at 270 pounds. Jackson had 12 1/2 tackles for loss in `18.

LINE OF PLENTY

The Falcons return three of their offensive linemen, including guard Nolan Laufenberg and tackle Parker Ferguson. Connor Vikupitz and Christopher Mitchell are back after rotating at center.

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Updated August 16, 2019

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