Observe Zion Kelly in a football practice, in the stands of a basketball game or, presumably anywhere, and it’s the constant motion that stands out.
“That’s just been me since I was little,” the Air Force cornerback said. “I’ve always had juice throughout everything I’ve done. I talk to my mom frequently and she’s just like, ‘Be yourself. Bring that juice. Be who you were when you were in high school.’ So, I just keep doing me.”
It’s that energy – now free to be placed on display as he pleases as he enters his senior year – that Kelly will take into a position battle at cornerback.
Three-year starter Tre’ Bugg III has graduated and is looking at an NFL opportunity. Remaining are Kelly, who started the first six games last year before dropping to a reserve/special teams role, Eian Castanguay, who started the final three games last year as the Falcons closed out a 10-3 season that included a victory in the First Reponder Bowl over Louisville. Michael Mack II started the four-game stretch between Kelly and Castanguay.
“They’ve played a little bit, those three have,” coach Troy Calhoun said at the end of spring practice, which ended last week. Calhoun also noted that all three could handle either of the cornerback roles, field or boundary.
Castanguay and Mack will be juniors in 2022. Rising sophomores Jemari Bellamy, Corey Collins and Trevon Williams could also factor into the mix.
“It was kind of interesting because it was almost like a three-man rotation with the older guys, and then the new guys filtering in,” Kelly said of spring practice. “Nothing is set in stone, so we’ve got to come out here and work every day.”
The cornerbacks are now under the direction of assistant Charlie Jackson, a 1998 Air Force graduate.
Kelly said there was little adjustment time needed for Jackson to reacclimate to the culture of the academy and the team after coming from Kentucky State, where he had been the head coach since 2018.
“He took the time in the meeting room to get to know who we were and get to know who we are as players. I think that’s the biggest thing,” Kelly said. “He’s a laid-back guy. He’s a funny guy. But when it comes to being out here on the field, it’s time to turn it on and make some plays.”
The cornerback spot is one of several on defense that will see a longtime contributor graduate but will have multiple players with starting experience there to take over. There are similar situations on the defensive line where Jordan Jackson exits and inside linebacker (Demonte Meeks).
Kelly hopes to be among the answers, and he’ll focus his considerable energy to making that happen.
“It’s definitely more comfortable being an upperclassman,” he said. “I remember freshman year I was more timid, kind of scared – I didn’t want to mess up. Now those younger guys are looking to you to bring that juice and that energy.”