Is it possible for Air Force’s defense to be better than it was last season?
Better than the squad that ranked No. 1 in the FBS in total defense a year ago?
Maintaining that level of play will certainly be hard to do. But the 2023 Falcons defense has the potential to be right up there.
Not only did the 254.4 yards allowed per game rank first in the country, but Air Force’s 13.38 points allowed per game ranked third. Of course, both of those were first in the Mountain West. With the returning production, the Falcons should have the top defense in the league again and one of, if not the best defense among Group of Five programs.
There will be eight players on the D that started in last year’s 30-15 Armed Forces Bowl win over Baylor. That Big 12 offense finished the season averaging 32.2 PPG.
All of the starters in the secondary that allowed just 159.1 YPG through the air last season are returning. That number was second in the country.
Cornerbacks Eian Castonguay and Michael Mack II will be back locking things down on the outside. Castonguay finished the year with three pass breakups and 32 tackles. Mack tallied 42 tackles, three passes defended, and one interception. Jamari Bellamy will also be returning to provide solid depth and secured one interception and one PBU while adding 27 tackles.
From the strong safety spot, ballhawk Camby Goff will be back after a 2022 campaign where he notched nine PBUs and three picks. He also finished with 42 tackles.
At free safety, Trey Taylor led the team with 69 tackles while breaking up four passes and snagging two interceptions on the season.
Also listed as a safety but plays somewhat of a hybrid role, Jayden Goodwin will be another guy that returns to fly around and make plays. His 58 tackles ranked fourth on the team, and he also contributed with four PBUs, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles.
The Falcons lose two of their three starting linebackers in TD Blackmon and Vince Sanford, but the replacements aren’t to be slept on. Johnathan Youngblood and Bo Richter should be the two guys filling in those starting spots. Youngblood secured 27 tackles last year while Richter tallied 26.
Alec Mock is the lone returner at the traditional linebacker spot and was third on the team with 65 tackles while adding a sack and three pass breakups.
The statistics from the secondary aren’t necessarily eye-popping, especially when you consider the Falcons were the second-ranked pass defense in the country. A lot of that also had to do with the dominant pass rush The Academy boasted, not to mention the run-heavy, time-controlling offense the Falcons are known for.
Still, that’s not to take away from those defensive backs. There’s hardly a better group.
The defensive line will have a big hole to fill, however, with the loss of Christopher Herrera. There will be two returners who showcased their talent and should provide a spark in that role. Nose guard Payton Zdroik finished with 30 tackles and his 5.5 sacks were second on the team. Jayden Thiergood should also have a big season and secured 22 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season.
It’s interesting to note that this stout defense only had two all-conference selections last season, and both were voted to the second team. That’s a tribute to how collective and well-balanced the defense was.
Don’t be surprised if that changes this year, though, as some of these more experienced guys are sure to earn some postseason honors. That only means that they’re getting better and scarier for opposing offenses.