- Creighton Smith
- Sophomore Bryan Blew competes for the starting quarterback position for Air Force Football, who opens their season at home against the defending National Champions.
Flashes of brilliance, punctuated by lapses that come with inexperience. The Air Force football team ended spring practice April 28 with its annual
Blue-Silver intersquad game. The game could have been a microcosm of the Falcons' month of practices.
There were big plays like Ricky Amezaga's 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and quarterback Andy Gray's 57-yard touchdown run. But there were also many miscues. The teams combined to commit 22 penalties for 148 yards. They also combined for six turnovers, including three fumbles and three interceptions.
Early inconsistency can be blamed in part on rustiness, but many mistakes were just a result of the steep learning curve the 2001 Falcons must ascend before the season opener against defending National Champion Oklahoma at Falcon Stadium Sept. 1. The Falcons lost 17 starters (eight offense, seven defense, two kickers) from last year's 9-3 squad, so there are many positions to fill, most importantly the position of quarterback, left vacant by the graduation this spring of Mike Thiessen, the 2000 Mountain West Conference Offensive MVP. Rising senior Keith Boyea and rising junior Bryan Blew had seemed to be the two prime candidates for the starting spot. Then, during the first week of April, another cadet got a chance; future sophomore Chance Harridge outshined both Boyea and Blew. Throughout spring practice, Boyea, Blew and Harridge each excelled and stumbled in turn, but none emerged as the top signal caller for fall.
"All three of our quarterbacks did good things today," Coach Fisher DeBerry said after Saturday's scrimmage. "We're basing our decision on productivity. You can look at the quarterback stats, reads, yardage gained, and passes completed. All that's irrelevant as far as I'm concerned. Bottom line is, the way you evaluate a quarterback is if he can get the team into the end zone or not. I'm not concerned with how many yards they gain or what their passing percentage is. All I'm concerned about is if they can direct the football team to the end zone. Finish things off."
Harridge rushed for 32 yards Saturday on nine carries, including a one-yard touchdown run, which capped a 13-play, 61-yard drive. He completed just two of six passes, though, for a net loss of 6 yards. Boyea, for the Silver, gained 65 yards on 12 carries, but was eight of 18 passing for 79 yards and two interceptions. Blew rushed 10 times for 51 yards, and completed three of seven passes for 19 yards.
"It's still probably a deadlock," Harridge said following the Blue-Silver game. "The one who comes in [in the fall] and starts making plays is going to be the starter."
Graduation wasn't the only factor contributing to the Falcons feeling shorthanded. At least 20 experienced players missed considerable time in spring practice, and to this DeBerry attributes the team's moments of inconsistency. Six veteran Falcons have not yet been able to return to full-contact drills. Seven more were injured during spring practice, although none seriously.
The injuries have allowed some players to rise up the depth chart and show their skills with the first team. Outside linebackers Adrian Wright and Ryan Carter both moved up to starting spots. Wright made 11 tackles in the Blue-Silver game, including three for loss. Carter had eight tackles, including one for loss. Daniel Schaffer took the starting role at fullback after not even being listed on the roster in the Spring Prospectus. He rushed for 21 yards on seven carries in the game.
At halfback, Brandon Brown took advantage of Tom Heier's slow recovery from the knee surgery that sidelined him all last season. Brown moved up to first on the depth chart, and rushed four times for 14 yards in the game, while Nate Baldwin moved up to second string, after starting spring far down on the depth chart. Jesse Underbakke moved from nowhere to second on the depth chart at right guard.
The Falcons had their first practice session right after Duke's Shane Battier led his team to the NCAA basketball championship. DeBerry said he "challenged several guys on our team that we need to find some Shane Battiers. There was no question in my mind what he did for that team and who was the leader of that team. That's what our team has got to find over the spring: some Shane Battiers that are out there on the field."
Rising to the top seems to be defensive tackle Justin Pendry and offensive tackle Ben Miller, both of whom anchored their respective lines last season.
DeBerry still sees much room for improvement but added, "We're not ending spring practice on a down note in any way. This football team has persevered this spring. But we don't have a lot of consistency now because we've had a lot of guys who missed a lot of quality time with injuries."