Bolstering the Depth Chart and Talent Pipeline
We started this series focusing on the 2020 Air Force roster by evaluating the Seniors to be. As documented, the senior class is not void of talent, and the team can expect to have a lot of critical contributors out of that year-four group of cadets. If you missed this piece, you can read it here. For a review of this years junior class, look no further. Last week we took a closer look at the sophomores, you can find that here.
We are going to conclude this class by class series review with the 2020 incoming freshman. Air Force recruiting classes will never be mistaken for an Alabama or Ohio State haul. At least, not by conventional prospect rating standards they won’t.
However, it is in the results the Falcon football program has had on and off the field that should more properly demonstrate the quality of their recruits. Air Force doesn’t have the luxury of redshirting, and well before the craze that is the present day transfer portal existed, their players could transfer out of the program up to their junior year without having to sit out a season.
I bring all of this to light to emphasize what a great job these young men do developing and competing at the highest level of division I football. And probably more remarkable is the how Ken Hatfield, Fisher DeBerry and now Troy Calhoun’s coaching staffs have been able to take the highest character student athletes, and use that attribute as a cornerstone for success over more conventional or measurable athletic prowess.
As I mentioned before, by probably the most recognizable prospect rating platform 247sports.com, Air Force isn’t going to garner much national attention. That doesn’t mean they do not have any touted prospects, especially by Mountain West Conference standards presently. But at times it is difficult to assess the success of a given class because team brings on so many prospects due to not having pure athletic scholarships, like most schools.
Sometimes this means more distinguished recruits of a given class can get lost in the wash, because a prospect rating is not a right to passage for playing time in Colorado Springs. This also sets up the opportunity for some pretty great narratives, like under-recruited players who end up being distinguished all conference performer. Look no further than the volume of Air Force players on the Mountain West’s 2019 All-Conference team.
With such a large influx of players, we will not be able to give everyone their proper dues. But I am going to take a look at some of the incoming freshman from varying perspectives, and see if we are possibly identifying the future Falcon stars, today.
Not so Typical Recruiting Class
If you want to view the 2020 commits on the 247sports site, you can do so here.
Air Force has had a lot more successful seasons over the last three coaching tenures than let downs. This has been despite regularly finishing outside of the top 100 in the country, and near the bottom of the conference as well in class rankings.
All of that to say, the 2020 recruiting class saw Air Force gain commitments from six of their 15 most highly rated recruits since 247sports has tracked prospect ratings. The prize of the class being Blake Burris on the defensive line. Burris is a 3-star prospect, from Dallas, Texas, and the Falcons second most highly rated recruit since such statistics were recorded.
Even beyond Burris, the Falcon defensive line got a serious injection of talent from another four 3-star prospects in Ryan Ives, Jayden Thiergood, Matthew Aribisala and Sam Petersen. This is very encouraging considering how well the defensive line has performed in recent years.
Most recently, Jordan Jackson played regularly as a freshman three years ago on the D-Line. He has since proven himself an All-Conference standout. Perhaps the next freshman to gain regular playing time on the defensive line is among this class?
The QB Room
The Falcons are undoubtedly looking to see who will succeed D.J. Hammond after this year. Commonly, the succession plan entails an experienced upperclassmen. The last time a freshman played regularly at quarterback for Air Force was Nate Romine in the disastrous 2013 season. The team had injuries that went four deep to get to the point which a freshman was thrust into battle.
There is not wealth of experience behind Hammond on the 2020 roster. Its anyone’s guess who will secure the backup or even third string spot on the depth chart. The reason this is important of note, the Falcons played three different quarterbacks in as many seasons.
So while there may be a ton of promise in the 2020 crop of freshman QB’s, I don’t think coach Thiessen or Calhoun want to find out in situations of any consequence. Unless of course the next Tim Jefferson is on the roster.
The feature name of this years prospects would be Jameson Wang out of California. As a 3-star prospect, he is the most highly rated recruit of the bunch. A couple other names to consider would be Cannon Turner, Asher Link and Mason Bugg.
And even though Weston Steelhammer already lays claim to the title of greatest football name, Cannon is quite apropos for a quarterback. And speaking of great names, if Mason Bugg sounds familiar, his brother Milton (Tre) is a returning starting defensive back, and a darn good one! Stay tuned for more on Mason.
Elsewhere on Offense
The Falcons sported one of the best offensive lines in the country last year, and shouldn’t expect much dropoff this year. They have seen talent depart to graduation as they do every year, but the 2020 recruiting class provides some youth for the talent pipeline.
At the front of that talent stream would have to be Wesley Ndago and Adam Karas, both 3-star recruits. Also rounding out the room are 2-star prospects Jack Parker, Matthew Heitmann, Holden Brosnan and Costen Cooley.
While playing as a freshman at Air Force is certainly an anomaly, and not the norm, first year players have seen the field at wide-receiver each of the last two seasons. Could Seth Meador or Cameron Everts, both by way of Texas be this years Dane Kinamon or Brandon Lewis? Or maybe there is even a Jalen Robinette (Rowell) lurking in the group?
Air Force is always looking to bolster their stable of running backs as well. With the offense they run, there are a lot of opportunities for carries to be had. Thankfully they have two studs in Kade Remsberg and Tim Jackson returning, but who will succeed them in the coming years?
Owen Burke is the most highly graded prospect of the 2020 class out of Allendale, Michigan. Just call it a hunch, but I think Nolan Carey Jr is going to be a name that Falcon fans become familiar with in the coming years. A powerful runner with high-end speed, he will fit very nicely in their triple-option attack.
Defense, Defense, Defense (and special teams)
I mentioned previously that there should be a lot of excitement around the defensive line commits coming into the Academy. However, there should be a lot of enthusiasm in the secondary as well, especially with the exodus of safeties from last season.
Coming in at safety with the 2020 class are Lincoln Tuioti-Mariner, Halatoa Tai, Jalen Hodo and Kaiser Cambra-Cho, who are all graded out as 3-star prospects. Not to be outdone are incoming linebackers Alec Mock and Osaro Aihie who also earned 3-star ratings.
I would be remiss if we didn’t put a spotlight on Fabrizio Pinton, who is the 11th ranked kicking prospect in the country. Air Force returns virtually no experience in the kicking game this year, so all bets are off. Its unlikely to see a freshman start at a Military School, this also holds true at kicker. The rigors that freshman face at the Academy make being a full-time starter a very tall ask.
Spotlight: Mason Bugg
I wanted to make sure to focus in on a prospect who may be a bit off the radar to most, but to me embodies the prototype for an Air Force player. It would be easy to zero in on one of this years 3-Star prospects, but I wanted to go a different direction.
Lets talk a little bit about Mason Bugg. His brother Tre has already charted a nice path as a Falcon, and maybe Mason can too. He may not be a 5-star recruit, but what he is;
State Champion. State Championship Game MVP. #1 in QBR for the State of Arizona. Single Season Yardage and Touchdown Record Holder at his high school. Team Captain.
Mason Bugg is a winner.
This is a player that stands out to me for multiple reasons, one of which being his playing style reminds me of Isaiah Sanders. Many forget that Sanders was an accomplished engineer of the spread offense before coming to Air Force. Sanders also had a lot of success when he had the opportunity to play. Just ask Colorado State about that. They are still trying to track him down from that 2017 shellacking.
Another similarity I see is that Bugg enters a crowded quarterback room, and a majority of the teammates he’ll be competing with were more highly recruited, or rated as prospects.
But I also saw a similar scenario when then Elite 11 quarterback Ryan Brand committed to the Air Force Academy in 2015. Arguably the most decorated arm to sign at the Academy, by 2017 he was across the country in College Park, at the University of Maryland as a transfer.
At Air Force, Brand found himself buried down the depth chart behind younger players like Isaiah Sanders, fellow junior Arion Worthman, and then senior Nate Romine. This is not an indictment on Ryan Brand. He saw action as a starting quarterback in the Big Ten Conference. It is however, a referendum on how things are different at Air Force.
So when a Kale Pearson, Isaiah Sanders, D.J. Hammond or maybe next a Mason Bugg take the reins under center over more decorated prospects, don’t be surprised.
I don’t know if there is ever going to be a time where freshman recruits are regularly brought in to compete as starters right away. “Service Before Self…” is part of the moniker at the Air Force Academy. These young men are great athletes, but they are fulfilling an even greater puprpose in their commitment to country first.
And the reality is, many of the young men who begin at the Academy simply will not be there next year. That is life at a Military Institution. But it doesn’t mean we can’t observe, and wait for that unicorn to show up. The next Tim Jefferson or Jalen Robinette (Rowell).
Best of luck to this incoming class of freshman, thank you for your commitment to serve, and May God Bless and Protect You.