Photo: Weston Steelhammer breaks up a pass against Navy.
As a former college baseball recruit, Weston Steelhammer played the sport long enough to understand spring optimism and the rite of passage in the diamond game.
That definition changed, though, once the former Alabama baseball recruit cast his future with the Air Force Academy and the Falcons’ football team. This time of year now means spring football and that seems fitting, especially after Steelhammer earned All-Mountain West Conference first-team defense honors as a sophomore strong safety in 2014. After all, doesn't a guy name Steelhammer belong on a football field?
The last two springs Steelhammer flirted with playing baseball for the Falcons until the overly ambitious plans ended with the start of spring football. But he says spring optimism still hovers over the campus at the base of Pikes Peak and the Southern Rocky Mountains.
Air Force’s spring football recently wrapped up with Steelhammer saying the Falcons feel as good or better about their upcoming season as they did this time a year ago when they were confronted with bouncing back from a 2-10 record in 2013.
“I think those of us that got a chance to step up last year felt we were ready,” said Westhammer. “With the work we put in day in and day out from spring (2014), I don’t think the season surprised any of us. Maybe people outside the program we’re surprised with what we did, but we weren't at all.”
The 2-10 record was a startling wake-up call for the Falcons that arrived as freshman in 2013. That wasn't what they signed up for when they arrived to join a program that at the time enjoyed six straight previous bowl games and trips to the White House for winning the Commander-in-Chief Trophy in 2010 and 2011.
But as sophomores in in 2014, the class filled key holes. The Falcons finished with a 10-3 record, including claiming the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy and a Famous Idaho Potato Bowl victory over Western Michigan.
Steelhammer, a 6-foot-2, 200-pounder from Shreveport (La.) Calvary Baptist Academy, was one of three sophomores to earn All-MWC honors. The other two were running back Jacobi Owens and wide receiver Jalen Robinette gaining honorable mention.
Seven other sophomores, offensive lineman Colin Sander, fullback Shayne Davern, nose guard David Harris, outside linebacker Ryan Watson, outside linebacker Jacob Onyechi, cornerback Roland Ladipo and strong safety Hayes Linn, contributed as two-deep members of the depth chart.
That’s especially significant in academy football, where the most successful teams are built around juniors and seniors. Air Force’s winning season with a strong corps of sophomores means the Falcons can expect an experienced lineup the next two seasons.
Air Force opens the 2015 campaign with home games Sept. 5 against Morgan State and the MWC opener Sept. 12 against San Jose State. The Falcons travel to Michigan State on Sept. 19 to face a preseason Top 10 team. The Navy game is Oct. 3 in Annapolis and the Falcons host Army Nov. 7.
“A lot of young guys I played with stepped up into their roles,” Steelhammer said of last season. “I think the spring practices this year were pretty good to get us more involved. We’re now older guys stepping into more leadership positions. It’s our job to replace last year’s leaders.”
As a freshman, Steelhammer played in only eight games with seven tackles in back-up and special-teams roles. In his breakout sophomore season, he started every game, was fifth in tackles and led the team with six interceptions, including three straight games. He was a Jim Thorpe Award candidate.
“I felt I was ready last year and took advantage of it,” he said. “I think instincts kicked in for me. I was in the weight room trying to get bigger, stronger and faster, but that’s what everybody is trying to do. I feel instincts separate guys from making a play or not.”
But Steelhammer demands more improvement from himself in 2015.
“I can improve everywhere,” he said. “I can't pinpoint one area. I’m not where I want to be right now. The ceiling is higher for me in not one thing but many things.”
The Falcons' Class of 2013 optimism hasn't wavered since they first arrived together as freshman and went through their first spring football in 2014.
“You could tell we felt something special about us when we got together,” Steelhammer said. “Everyone felt we were part of something bigger than ourselves. That’s what got us to where we were going last year.”
--- Tom Shanahan has featured Army, Navy and Air Force athletes for nearly 30 years in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Rivals.com and the Raleigh News and Observer. He attended his first Army-Navy Game after John Feinstein wrote in his book on the rivalry, “A Civil War,” everyone should attend the Army-Navy Game at least once.