Jeremy Fejedelem long ago learned to weaponize the chip that has always resided on his shoulder.
The safety for No. 24 Air Force grew up undersized, and remains so at 5-foot-10, 195 pounds. He was the youngest of three brothers, including Cincinnati Bengals safety Clayton Fejedelem. He was lightly recruited. As a freshman at Air Force, he wasn’t invited to travel to the Arizona Bowl.
“I think it’s kind of helped me progress as a good athlete and a person as well,” Fejedelem said of consistently defying expectations.
In talking about Friday’s Cheez-It Bowl matchup against Washington State (6-6) and the vaunted passing attack led by coach Mike Leach, Fejedelem again talked of “proving something” for the Mountain West and Group of Five conferences as a whole with this game against a Pac-12 program.
But he wasn’t speaking in platitudes as he addressed how being overlooked could work to the favor of the Falcons (10-2) in this matchup that pits extremes with Air Force’s third-ranked rushing attack and the Cougars’ national-best passing game.
In the past two games, Washington State has thrown five interceptions. Breaking down those miscues, Fejedelem thinks the issue has been a case of “just a little bit too much trust in their own ability,” and trying to fit passes into windows that were too small.
Fejedelem would like nothing more than to have Cougars quarterback Anthony Gordon underestimate his ability in the secondary, putting a ball in a spot where he can grab an interception that could factor heavily in a game that might not have many stops – the 68-point over/under trails only No. 4 Oklahoma vs. No. 1 LSU among remaining bowl games, as bettors see this as a potential track meet.
“It’s exciting because we know what their offense is capable of, and we know that a lot of this game is going to ride on the defensive backs and me in particular being a free safety and being able to be involved in a lot of plays,” Fejedelem said.
Fejedelem, with a team-leading 211 career tackles and five interceptions, leads a veteran secondary for the Falcons entering what will be the most complex test of their careers. Strong safety Garrett Kauppila has started for three consecutive seasons and graduated from the academy earlier this month. Cornerbacks Zane Lewis and Milton (Tre’) Bugg are two-year starters. Nickel Grant Theil is also a senior.
Coach Troy Calhoun said that experience has helped Air Force’s preparation, as the group has seen so many types of offenses over the past few years.
And any small advantage will help in trying to slow a Cougars offense that has seven players with 500 or more receiving yards.
“We have the most difficult recruiting challenge in all of sports when it comes to being a football coach at the Air Force Academy,” Calhoun said. “To find somebody that can qualify to come to the United States Air Force Academy, to be able to develop in an environment where, you look at it, you have roughly 90 minutes when it comes to being able to practice. And finding someone who is willing to go serve. That’s true at every position, and certainly it applies to the secondary, too.”
Leach noted the quick first steps taken by Air Force defenders, a sign they are decisive and confident in their movements.
“I think they play together well,” he said. “The highest compliment I can give is that everybody does their job.”
Gordon, the nation’s leading passer, adds that the Falcons secondary is a “real persistent group. They’re real smart and they’re always in the right place. They’re going to bring it every single play.”
The contrasts in style have brought attention to this game, which will kick off at 8:15 p.m. on ESPN from Chase Field in Phoenix. The Air Raid vs. Air Force, has been a refrain stuck on repeat.
For the Falcons, this game is big for reasons unrelated to the matchup. While the Cougars are playing in their fifth straight bowl game, this is Air Force’s first since 2017. No current Falcons have appeared in a bowl game.
There’s also the matter of the NFL. Rules changes from the Department of Defense will allow service academy graduates to defer their military commitment and play immediately, and players like receiver Geraud Sanders and Fejedelem haven’t been shy in discussing their ambitions to break into the next level.
So, this is a chance to prove something. And that’s something Fejedelem, and so many of his teammates, have long embraced.