Can coverage match tackling in 2019?
Its a senior laden cast at safety
If you have been keeping up with our position previews for Air Force, there has been a lot of optimism drawn from the prior season’s performers. The Falcon secondary is the position group that has the most to prove this season though.
That’s not to say there isn’t optimism around the defensive backfield at Colorado Springs. But I think it’s fair to say the biggest unknown factor in Air Force’s ability to swing from a bordering Bowl eligible team, to legitimate Mountain Division Contender is how the secondary will perform this year.
Chip Vaughn returns for his second season as the secondary coach at the Academy, and if you subscribe to defensive team rankings, his unit has a lot of opportunity to improve on their placement.
Air Force’s pass defense finished outside of the top 100 in five different categories. Most notably, they finished dead last in the FBS in yards per completion by opposing offenses. For context, that means 129 teams finished ahead of them.
Support from the Safeties
The secondary is not entirely responsible for their less than favorable place in pass defense rankings. However, there is a serious onus on them if they wish to improve upon that standing. This position group was riddled with injuries and an inconsistent lineup in 2018. As would be with most teams who share this type of narrative, the results were less than favorable.
That was last year’s team.
If you are looking for reasons why this group can rebound this year, look no further than the safeties. The secondary will return five interceptions and 13 pass breakups to the 2019 edition of the Falcons. Four of those possession changers came courtesy of the safeties.
Air Force is loaded with seniors and experience at safety. Some may contend that it’s not necessarily a good thing if you are returning players at a position which didn’t fare well as far as the statistics reflect. I would beg to differ in this case.
One of the reasons I believe safety play can be formidable this season is because of Jeremy Fejedelem. He was an honorable mention for the Mountain West All-Conference team last year, racking up a team-leading 104 tackles to go along with three interceptions. He began seeing playing time as a cornerback in 2017, and he displays that playmaking ability which compliments his reliability as a tackler. The downside of that is, no team wants to see their safety making this many tackles.
Fejedelem made the most of his opportunity and shined when he moved to safety. Ironically, one of the reasons he was able to see the field initially was an injury to then-starting safety Garrett Kauppila. Unfortunately, Kauppila has been embattled with injuries the last two seasons, but when healthy he has proven to be a very good player. In his 11 games seeing action, Kauppila has tallied 50 tackles, 4 pass breakups, a forced fumble and two game-changing blocked punts. This is productivity that the Falcons would love to see generated across a full season.
Returning in 2019 is also James Jones IV. He was a pretty distinguished cornerback recruit to the Academy as a three-star prospect. Jones IV missed all of last year because of a knee injury in the off-season. Assuming he can regain form, he gives the Falcons some flexibility as he can also line up on the outside.
The other member of that aforementioned collection of senior safeties is Grant Thiel, and he is the wildcard of this bunch. In his three games as a starter last season he collected an interception, tackle for loss and a forced fumble. As it stands, Thiel and Fejedelem closed out spring camp at the top of the depth chart projecting as the two starters.