• Graham Knight

Air Force Falcons' 2021 Season Preview

Reporting by Graham Knight

edited for web by Joe Harman

To preview the Air Force Falcons' 2021 football season, we turned to the guy who knows the team better than just about anyone: Brent Briggeman, Air Force sports beat writer for The Gazette in Colorado Springs, CO.

In this interview Brent talks to BTL host Graham Knight about how the returning "turn-backs," (those cadets who opted to take the fall 2020 semester away from the Academy due to the pandemic, and therefore didn't play football) will have an impact, where the team stands with the quarterback position and what the biggest story-lines will be in 2021.

Here is their conversation:

Graham Knight: Brent, it's great to have you back on the show. Let's let's just talk generically first. What's your take on the 2021 Air Force Falcons?

Brent Briggeman: There's a lot of reason to be really interested in this team. I think the defense, in particular, is going to be . . . it's going to be a unique season just because they had all the turn-backs and most of those came on the defensive side.

Basically the entire starting defense that they had pegged for 2020 took the semester off. All those guys are now back and they are mixed in with the guys who did start in 2020, and they had a lot of success. They pitched a shutout out against New Mexico and, really, throughout most of the season, they held their own.

Now you have those experienced guys from 2020 with a whole slew of guys who were supposed to be the guys last season and they're all going to be fighting for those same spots. So, defensively, there's a ton of depth and a lot of talent. We don't know a lot about the offense yet, but we know the defense is going to be loaded.

Graham: On the offensive side, the only three players we really know about and we've heard about so far are starters Brad Roberts, Hazziq Daniels and Kyle Patterson.

Brent: And to that list I'll add Brandon Lewis, who was a slot receiver, he played a lot last year. And then David Cormier has been in the program for five years. So he's a known commodity within Air Force, even though he hasn't played. So there's a lot of returning talent on offense, even though from an experience standpoint, it may not jump out on paper.

Graham: Is there anybody else on the Air Force roster that you're you've got your eye on or anybody else that you think we should be watching this season?

Brent: Well, defensively, they've got some legitimate All-Mountain West type candidates: De'Monte Meeks at linebacker, Trey Bugg at defensive back, Jordan Jackson up front, Lakota Wills at outside linebacker . . .those guys have been around. But, again, none of them were around last year, they all took the turn-back. So it'll be interesting to see with a year off and one more year of maturity just how good they can be. Because they're some of the more talented defensive players Air Force has had, certainly, in my ten years on this beat. They're going to be guys I like to watch

Offensively, huge question marks at quarterback. Hazziq Daniels is the presumed starter. But he barely won the position last year and he didn't exactly seize it with both hands. So, there's going to be a lot to be determined at that spot, which is, obviously, a very critically important position. And then at tailback, Brad Roberts might slip back there from fullback, or we might see somebody new because they return no experience to tailback.

Air Force Academy football players run onto the field as a team before a game from the 2020 season.
Falcons' junior QB Haaziq Daniels (4) is prepped to lead an explosive Air Force passing attack in 2021

So, there's there's a lot of positions that need to be filled, more so than individuals that we've really kind of had our eye on, other than Cormier: a receiver who has been a talked-about talent since he was recruited, that finally, five years later, we're going to get to see him on the field.

Graham: If you had to say now what you expect from Air Force: are they as strong as they were last year, middle of the road or not quite the team we've seen in the past? Where do you put them right now?

Brent: I'd put them stronger than they were last year, just because Hazziq Daniels will have had that year of experience. And the defense will be a lot more talented. But in terms of years past, it's going to totally depend on the quarterback position. If they can find someone who can mimic what a Donald Hammond or some of their better quarterbacks of recent years have done, then they can be a really good team. Because I think this defense is going to carry them a long way.

But the defense, in this day and age of college football, points are going to be scored against you no matter how good your defense is. So if Air Force can find an offense to keep up with that, I think that's going to be the determining factor. And I think they have the talent on offense to do that. But, again, until we see a quarterback out there really running the show, it's hard to say. But I could easily see this team winning eight or nine games.

Graham: Let's turn to the schedule. What's your take on the schedule and what games jump out at you?

Brent: It's the schedule we saw coming. Air Force doesn't usually have a lot of surprises in the schedule because they really only have one game that is the wild card each year because they have Army and Navy. They have four non-conference slots; Army and Navy take two of them. The FCS opener is always another one, so it's always that one spot. This year it's Florida Atlantic in a return trip -- part of the home-and-home series. So, that's an extremely winnable game: Florida Atlantic coming to the Falcon Stadium.

If Air Force can win the Commander-In-Chief's trophy, which obviously is certainly not a given, and win four games in non-conference then suddenly . . .. You look at how good they can be in the Mountain West? The Mountain West is going to be a little bit down, there's been so much coaching turnover. There's always going to be the big games against Boise State, Colorado State, the Utah State and the division rivals. But it's really nothing out of the ordinary for an Air Force schedule.

There's going to be some difficult road trips with teams that have a lot more firepower, especially from the west side of the conference in terms of what they do in the passing game and whatnot. But with Air Force, it usually comes down to how Air Force is doing more so than than how the opponents are doing. Because when Air Force is at its best, even the games against Boise State, which this year is on the road, those games are always competitive when Air Force is at its best.

Graham: So how big a deal is it that Air Force does not have a home game against either Navy or Army? They're going to play at Navy on September 11th, it's the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and then they'll play Army in Arlington, Texas, on November 6th. How big a deal is it to the fans? How big a deal is it to the team not to have an academy game at home?

Brent: It's going to be a huge deal for the alumni. They usually target that weekend for reunions and get-togethers, and that's the one game on the schedule where you can bank on Falcon Stadium being either full or close to full. You know there's going to be a traffic jam. You know local restaurants are going to be filled that weekend. So, to take that away, is going to be a big deal for Colorado Springs and to the people who are closely tied to the academy and who really like to come back and bask in that environment every year.

But this is just something that athletic director Nathan Pine wanted to do. And he's not the first athletic director from Air Force to try to take a game elsewhere and to build awareness of Air Force in this region. So they're taking this one to Dallas. And, you know, that's the cost, is you lose the home game.

Graham: As we wrap this up, let's just fast forward to December. The season is kind of wrapping up. What's going to be the big story-line at the end of the season? What are you and I going to be talking about when we do this, as we kind of review what happened in 2021?

Brent: I've been on the David Cormier bandwagon since he was a recruit in Albuquerque. And again . . . he came in, went to the prep school, didn't play as a freshman just because Air Force, of course, rarely plays freshman. He was ineligible as a sophomore for a violation. And then he took a turn-back as a junior. He has been one of the best talents I've seen for Air Force at receiver in practice. I think he's going to be one of those Jalen Robinette/Jerod Sanders type players who can just really change a game for force on the edge. And I think a lot of eyes are going to be opened when they see a six foot three, two hundred and twenty pound athletic receiver for Air Force changing games. And I think we're going to talk about a renewed passing game for Air Force because of what he brings. And then Patterson has a tight end and Brandon Lewis.

I think there's a lot of weapons in the passing game. People obviously assume Air Force just means running game. But I think this year is a year where if they have a quarterback that can do it, they can beat a lot of teams through the air.

And I think that plus the defense is going to make this one of those teams that, if they're having that kind of season I think, in December, people are going to be really excited about watching Air Force and what this brand of football looks like. So, I think it's all going to start with David Cormier being on the edge. And I think it's going to be an interesting year for Air Force to diversify its offense.