LARAMIE – The arm strength of Air Force quarterback Donald Hammond III is the stuff of legend.
Senior wide receiver Geraud Sanders, quite matter-of-factly, says he has seen the junior signal caller uncork a ball 70 yards from his knees. Hammond’s arm, he says, is rare. Even University of Wyoming defensive coordinator Jake Dickert said it was likely among the strongest in the country.
“(Hammond) throws the hardest ball I’ve ever caught,” said Sanders, who leads the Falcons with 713 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. “I’ve seen him throw the ball 100 yards. No joke.”
Hammond’s arm has been unleashed in recent weeks, particularly against New Mexico last weekend. Air Force (9-2 overall, 6-1 Mountain West) has long been known for running the triple-option under head coach Troy Calhoun, and the success speaks for itself: a 96-69 record and nine (soon to be 10) bowl berths.
But against the Lobos, Hammond’s passing skills were on display. Hammond threw for 327 yards and four touchdowns on 9-of-10 passing. And, of course, the team ran for 213 yards in a 44-22 victory.
“(It’s great) being able to listen to the people who say it’s a run-first team, but you look at the stats,” Sanders said. “(People say), ‘They’re running the ball, and they sure are throwing the ball.’”
Yes, the emergence of Hammond and the Falcons’ passing attack has helped Air Force reverse its recent fortunes. Consecutive 5-7 seasons in 2017 and ’18 seem like a distant memory.
The reason for the team’s turnaround, more so than better statistics on both sides of the ball, is a camaraderie that has allowed the Falcons to weather nearly any storm.
“This year’s been surreal, to be honest,” senior running back Taven Birdow said. “I’ve seen everybody grow. This year is kind of like the culminating event of that. Everybody is getting the chance to give it one last shot … it’s all coming together.”
The last time Air Force won as many games as it has now was back in 2016, when this year’s current seniors were freshmen. That team had a different feel, according to senior linebacker Kyle Johnson.
“They had some great players on that team. They played with passion and energy … (But) our team is a lot closer,” Johnson said. “There were a lot of fights breaking out at the time … there’s no bickering (with this team).”
Last season, Air Force lost five games by eight points or fewer, including a 35-27 loss at UW where the Falcons led by 10 points heading into the fourth quarter. The memories of devastating losses have helped drive Air Force in 2019. The Falcons have only played in two games that were decided by seven points or fewer this season. They are 2-0 in those contests, with those wins coming over Pac-12 foe Colorado and rival Army.
“That was the best 5-7 team I’ve ever seen,” Johnson said. “We could have had a couple bounces our way.”
You can’t mention Air Force’s success this season without looking at the running game.
Three different running backs have 650 yards or more, and each brings something different to the table. Kadin Remsberg (809 yards), according to Sanders, is the speedster. Birdow (684 yards) is the combo back with “good speed, but will run through you,” and Timothy Jackson (745 yards) “will be one of the best to ever come here,” Sanders said. There is a reason the team averages 304.4 yards per game on the ground, ranking second in the country. With Hammond leading the offense and its newfound passing success, Air Force is averaging 35.6 points per game.
The Falcons’ defense is also much improved from the past two seasons; in 2017 Air Force allowed 32.4 points per game and 25.8 in 2018. That number is down to 21 this season, which is third in the MW.
But beyond numbers and statistics is a more intangible reason behind Air Force’s successful 2019 season, players say: Senior leadership has stepped up in the best way possible, and the Falcons are reaping the benefits every Saturday.
“The biggest thing that I see is that the senior class stepped up to be role models,” Birdow said. “Having a solid senior class to lead the rest of the team is huge.”
And you’d better believe that the Falcons remember the pain of last season’s loss in Laramie. They are ready for a gritty rematch.
“Every year, it’s going to be a dogfight (against Wyoming),” Birdow said. “It is exciting knowing that it’s going to be a dogfight going into it.”