When Jemal Singleton tells his players that football isn’t rocket science, he’s uniquely qualified to do so.
He would know. He took a class on it at the Air Force Academy.
“Football’s a lot easier than trying to do that stuff,” said the Eagles’ assistant head coach and running backs coach.
The influence of Singleton’s Air Force background, both as a player and a second-generation service member, is palpable in his coaching methods and leadership style. And that goes well beyond the unorthodox ball-security drills he has employed since training camp, some of which can be traced back to service academy coaches.
In the individual portion of Eagles practices, Singleton has employed a handful of unusual pieces of equipment. Sometimes it’s a football attached to a chain. Other times, it could be boxing gloves attached to a stick or a football filled with water.
“A Navy guy came up with that one,” he said of the water ball.
Even as the son of a retired Air Force sergeant, Singleton enrolling in the Air Force Academy was never a foregone conclusion. As a stocky linebacker out of Taft High School in San Antonio, he was mostly focused on going Division I and potentially switching to running back when recruiting letters started rolling in.
He had good enough grades to garner interest from a few Ivy League schools, but when he got a letter from the Air Force Academy, he was actually surprised.
“I didn’t even know the Air Force Academy had a football team,” Singleton said. “It wasn’t until my junior year in high school, when I started getting recruiting letters from the Air Force, that I actually learned about it. I just remember my first letter, I was like, ‘Air Force?’”
Singleton also learned about the service requirements Air Force students are obligated to fulfill after graduation, but it didn’t deter him.
“There’re some guys that would be kind of turned off about the thought of having to serve in the military,” he said. “To me, it wasn’t something that I was afraid of. It was a great academic school, a chance to play Division I football, and I knew after that I’d be able to serve in the United States Air Force. It sounded like a great deal.”
His dad, Gary, spent 20 years in the Air Force, and Jemal has the childhood to show for it.
He was born in Turkey, lived in England, Germany, and Italy before moving in time for him to become a high school football standout. His parents met in England, but bouncing around was the norm.
“I definitely lived the life of a military brat,” Singleton said. “I think that’s one of the toughest questions you can ask a military brat, ‘Where are you from?’ Do you mean where were I was born? Where I lived the longest?”
If you’re going by years logged in one area, Colorado Springs, the campus for the Air Force Academy and about an hour from the Denver Broncos’ home, Empower Field at Mile High, ranks near the top of Singleton’s list of homes.
He was a three-year starter at running back for the Falcons and became one of six players in program history to be named a team captain twice. After he graduated, he spent about two years as a media relations officer in the Air Force and returned to the Academy for his first coaching job.
“He was just a natural leader,” former Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry said. “I think that’s what the academy does a lot of times. It teaches you how to lead. It produces leaders, and that’s what, in essence, the academy is supposed to do, it produces the leadership of our Air Force.”
In 2000,DeBerry gave Singleton his first coaching job as a prep assistant at the academy. He believes Singleton will be a head coach soon.
Eagles running back Boston Scott expressed a similar sentiment last week.
“I got a lot of respect for that dude,” Scott said. “He’s been a great coach, a great friend, a great mentor, motivator. It’s been really cool to get to know him in the short time we’ve been together. I’m excited for him, he has a lot of great qualities as a coach.
“I know he has aspirations to go [the head coaching] route, I hope that one day he’s able to get that chance.”
Singleton’s military-brat upbringing turned out to be a harbinger of what was to come. He spent the first 10 years of his coaching career at the Air Force, but has spent the last decade on six team’s staffs.
He coached running backs at Oklahoma State and Arkansas before taking the same job with the Indianapolis Colts in 2016. He also had stops with the Oakland Raiders and Cincinnati Bengals before Nick Sirianni plucked him when building his staff last offseason.
“I always joke that my wife must be a saint because she married an Air Force officer turned football coach,” Singleton said. “There are definitely some similarities in that aspect of it, the moving part. I’ve probably moved a little bit more than most, which is kind of crazy because I started my career at one place for a long time … but for me, that hasn’t been a bad thing. I learned a long time ago, it’s ‘Dive in. Dive into where you’re at.’”
Singleton replaced Duce Staley, who was on the Eagles’ staff from 2011-20, and holds the same title as assistant head coach.
“He has a lot of things that he’s able to provide insight to me with,” Sirianni said. “I really value that. First and foremost, he’s a great running back coach. And that’s his first job, to be our running back coach and to get the guys ready. He’s done a great job. I can’t say enough good things about Jemal, how good of a football coach he is. Great person. So, I’m able to bounce schedule thoughts off of him.”
Singleton has coached in almost run-exclusive systems like the triple-option that Air Force employed while he was there, but he has also coached in systems rooted in the Air Raid and West Coast offense.
Singleton found a common thread between the significantly different schemes, partly because of his experience in the Air Force.
“It’s very similar to the Air Force Academy, it’s all about finding that systematic approach, that process,” he said. “I don’t care what plays you’re running, but the approach of installing those things, how you do it, do you have the personnel to do it? All of that. That’s probably what I gathered most from the triple-option was, ‘Hey, these are the answers to the problems that you have and within that system, this is what you come up with.’”
He also has the perspective, whether it be rocket-science classes compared to offensive installs or a hard summer practice compared to the grueling experience of basic training.
“I’m climbing through this tube that’s through the dirt, carrying this rubber M16, and I literally get stuck in this tunnel,” Singleton said. “I think I’m going to die. I think it’s over, I’m about to die in this tunnel. But being able to get through that, dig myself out of that hole, that was one of the first serious tests I’d ever been in. Then I took water training, I thought I was going to die doing that, too.
“I’ve jumped out of airplanes solo with my own rip cord. The things that the academy tested me in academically, physically, and mentally, it built me, it helped me grow. I think one of the hardest things you have to do is lead peers, when you can do that, just the lessons and the way you figure out how to approach guys … my time at the academy is why I’m here. It’s why I’m here today.”