Are the Falcon linebackers even better this year?
Could Wills or Johnson make All-Conference?
The Air Force Academy is entering the 2019 campaign returning a lot of starters on both sides of the ball. Focusing on the linebackers, they bring back two of last year’s starters, and a wealth of experience amassed by the collective position group. The linebackers were a major factor in the Falcon’s stout run defense last season, if they want to enjoy similar success this year, it is imperative that the linebackers show up.
From the Outside
The Falcons run a 3-4 base defense, which utilizes four linebackers on most downs. They often use a hybrid linebacker, referred to the ‘Spur’ on their defense. The Spur linebacker over the past few seasons has been a converted defensive back, like a Kyle Floyd most recently. Floyd has since graduated, so it remains to be seen who will fill this void. One thing is for certain, whoever gets the nod will be expected to show a lot of versatility to be successful. Perhaps one of the many experienced returning safeties are called upon.
Ultimately, the Spur is just one facet of the outside linebacker corps in the Falcon defense. Outside linebacker coach, Brian Knorr is fortunate to return a guy with 20 games worth of experience under his belt in Lakota Wills. While Wills brings a lot of game experience to the fold, starting a majority of the games played over the last two years, he is only a junior. Cracking the lineup as a true freshman, he has accumulated 10.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 of those by way of sacking the quarterback.
Beyond Lakota Wills who was a starter last season, the Cadets also return a lot of game experience. Air Force also returns a four game starter in Grant Donaldson (junior), and Parker Noren (Sophomore) who earned a start as well.
Kyle Johnson anchors the middle
The inside linebackers for the Falcons don’t lack experience either. This is especially true if you consider the wealth of experience and success their position coach, Ron Vanderlinden brings to the fold. Coach Vanderlinden has been coaching at the FBS level since the 1970’s. A significant chunk of that time was spent in the 2000’s molding consensus All-Americans, along with Butkus and Bednarik award winners at Penn State. While he may not be a household name to fans outside of Colorado Springs or especially Happy Valley, do yourself a favor and research this man’s resume.
Paul Posluszny. Dan Connor. Sean Lee. NaVorro Bowman. All highly decorated in their collegiate careers. All sharing some varying levels of success in the NFL. All coached by Ron Vanderlinden.
I don’t know that Falcon linebacker, Kyle Johnson (senior) is going to collect the accolades or hardware that the aforementioned garnered. But then again, not many will. Kyle Johnson very well could find himself being recognized as an all-conference performer in the Mountain West this year though, if he continues to build on last year’s productivity that saw him collect 70 tackles and 7.5 sacks in his first season as a starter.
Projected to start alongside Johnson in the middle of the defense is Demonte Meeks (junior). Meeks is replacing Brody Bagnall who started 10 games last season. What should be noted though, is that Meeks closed out the last two games of the season as a starter in 2018. Between these starts and logging regular playing time as a depth player, he has seen the field enough to be confident in taking on a larger role.
Who else is ready?
The Falcons carry some additional depth on the inside with upper-classmen Price Morgan (senior) and Christopher Musselman (senior) each logging time in 10 games last year. Both of these guys could be expected to contribute on special teams as well as fortifying the linebacker depth.
Where the real intrigue waits is with the underclassmen from the last two seasons recruiting classes. This batch of prospects could prove to be the wildcards in the defenses rotation at the position, as well as posture for what the future of the defense could look like.
There are five notable 3-star prospects that have been brought to the Academy in the last two years. Sophomores Thadius Blackmon, Tim McClendon, Brandon Gooding and Jace Waters are all some of the more highly rated prospects in recent years. Noah Bush appears to be at the head of the 2019 recruiting class. Blackmon has already surfaced on the post-spring depth chart for what it’s worth. Maybe more worthy of note is that he is the most highly rated defensive prospect that Air Force has signed in the last decade.
More often than not, if you are assessing the future starters they may lay in waiting of the current recruiting classes, you have tempered enthusiasm for the “now”. That couldn’t be further from the truth with this position group at Air Force. The Falcon’s appear to have a very nice balance of youth to pair with returning production. Frankly, it is reasonable to expect this group to take a step forward from last year’s strong showing.