Blue Ribbon Preview: Air Force Falcons
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One streak ended while another remained intact for Air Force football under coach Troy Calhoun.
The Falcons won eight or more games in Calhoun's first four seasons, but despite having a veteran team, some key injuries resulted in only seven victories and they and finished a disappointing fifth in the Mountain West. But Air Force played in its fifth consecutive bowl game, where it lost 42-41 to Toledo in the Military Bowl. Still, Calhoun is the only coach in 100-plus years of service academy football to have such success.
Air Force also won its second straight Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, and has won five straight games against Army and Navy. In service academy football, those feats are bigger than bowl games and conference titles.
"We've had a heck of a run here," Calhoun said.
For that run to continue may take one of the best jobs to date for Calhoun and his staff. Air Force graduated 27 seniors and returns only three starters on offense and two on defense. However, there are several players projected to start or play this season that have seen game action.
"I'd expect this fall we're going to play a bunch of sophomores, yet sprinkle in some juniors and seniors," Calhoun said. "Every team always has to find their new path. This team, more than any other team I've been around, is going to have to find what their niche is. It's an eager group. We have a bunch of new blood in there.
Head Coach: Troy Calhoun (Air Force '89)
Record at school: 41-24 (5 years)
Career record:41-24 (5 years)
• Clay Hendrix (Furman '86) Assoc. Head Coach/Off. Coordinator
• Steve Russ (Air Force '95)Assoc. Head Coach/Def. Coordinator/Secondary
• Matt Thiessen (Air Force '01) Assistant Head Coach/Receivers
• Charlton Warren (Air Force '99) Assistant Head Coach/Recruiting
• Blane Morgan (Air Force '99) Off. Coordinator/Quarterbacks
• Ron Burton (North Carolina '87) Defensive Line
• Jake Campbell (Air Force '96) Offensive Assistant
• Ben Miller (Air Force '00) Tight Ends/Special Teams
• Jake Moreland (Western Michigan '00) Tight Ends
• Lt. Col. Bill Price (Air Force '91) Offensive assistant
• Capt. John Rudzinski (Air Force '05) Outside Linebackers/Recruiting Coordinator
• Lt. Col. Darryl Sumrall (Air Force '89) Assistant Coach
• Matt Weikert (Ohio '02) Inside Linebackers
Tim Jefferson ended his Air Force career ranked in the top 10 in 11 statistical categories in school history, including a record 28 victories. To replace him, the Falcons have a proven guy back in senior Connor Dietz (6-0, 190) who played in nine games in 2011 and in 12 the previous two seasons. Jefferson was the third-leading rusher last season with 553 yards and was second with 11 touchdowns in Air Force's triple-option offense that incorporates a lot of NFL zone-style run schemes. Air Force coaches have said Dietz is a better runner than Jefferson and averaged 6.6 yards on 38 carries last season.
Still, his passing production needs to improve. He was 9 of 15 for 128 yards with a touchdown and an interception last season.
"He brings something to the table ability-wise," associate head coach and co-offensive coordinator Clay Hendrix said. "He made some good progress this spring. I think there will be competition there, but he's clearly ahead of the other guys." Calhoun described Dietz's chance to be the regular starter with some rodeo lingo.
"He finally gets to get in the saddle and grab hold of the reins," he said. "In our approach, it's not so much a saddle, you're going to go bareback a little bit."
The backup battle should be among three guys: senior Tucker Tipton (5-10, 188) and sophomores Kyle Pearson (5-10, 175) and Mitch Greibel (6-0, 190). Tipton played in four games last season, completing both of his passes for 24 yards, and ran for five yards on one carry.
A big reason Air Force has finished in the top 10 nationally in rushing every year since 1987, including 314.8 yards per game last season, has been the play of the fullback. That was believed to be a question mark going into last season, but it's now a strength with the return of senior Mike DeWitt (6-1, 220) who led the team with 12 rushing touchdowns and was second with 567 yards. "He was a different player this spring than he was last year," Hendrix said. "He went through some growing pains and some ball security stuff, but I thought he played pretty well this spring."
Sophomore Broam Hart (6-1, 210) also will play after getting time in seven games last season, where he ran for 55 yards on 11 carries. Hendrix is high on sophomore Tyrone Sauls (6-1, 220), who came in as a safety and turned down a scholarship from Oregon.
"We probably have as much depth there as we've had," he said.
Another fullback, senior Wes Cobb (5-9, 196) was moved back to his natural position as a tailback in the spring. Cobb ran for 425 yards and four touchdowns last season. The move was out of necessity as Air Force needs to replace last year's leading rusher and second-team All-Mountain West pick Asher Clark (1,110 yards, seven touchdowns).
"Wes may be one of the more dependable kids we have in the program," Hendrix said.
Senior Cody Getz (5-7, 170) was hurt in the Military Bowl and practiced some in the spring. He ran for 102 yards and a touchdown last season. Hendrix said junior Anthony LaCoste (5-10, 190) was the Falcons' best special teams player last season. He chipped in 129 yards on just nine carries in 2011. He's coming off an ACL injury, but Hendrix is confident he'll be ready for the season. Sophomore Jon Lee (5-10, 190) also will get a chance to work his way into the two-deep in fall camp.
"We've got some guys that have played and have been pretty good players, we just got to get them healthy," Hendrix said.
Hendrix said this is an area that could be "more by committee" than any other spot on offense.
Air Force doesn't throw the ball a lot, but it lost four of its top five receivers from 2011, including 6-4 senior Zack Kauth (31 catches, 620 yards, five touchdowns) and Jonathan Warzeka (31 catches, 442 yards, four touchdowns).
The leading returning receiver is senior Mikel Hunter (5-9, 170), who averaged 17.5 yards on his 14 catches and scored two touchdowns. "He's a guy that we've got to get more involved," Hendrix said.
Junior Ty MacArthur (5-9, 170) should be a good fit at the Z-receiver spot. Two of his four catches last season were for touchdowns, and he averaged 25.2 yards per catch. He broke his collarbone against Boise State last year but returned to play in the bowl game. Senior Drew Coleman (5-9, 175) played in 10 games and caught seven passes for 119 yards and a touchdown in 2011, but is coming off shoulder surgery.
Both of Air Force's tight ends on its two-deep from 2011 were seniors. The only one that returns that saw game action was junior Devin Durden (6-4, 235) who caught just one pass for three yards.
Even though junior center Michael Husar, Jr. (6-0, 250) didn't start, Hendrix thinks highly of him.
"Since I've been here he has a chance to be the best player we've had," said Hendrix, who has been at Air Force for six years and also coaches the offensive line.
Players need to emerge at guard, but junior Drew Kerber (6-3, 265) saw action in six games there last season.
Air Force lists its defense as multiple, but most of the time its base was a 3-4. Chartlon Warren is the new defensive coordinator after Matt Wallerstedt went to Texas A&M. Warren and Steve Russ, both Air Force graduates and two of nine Air Force alumnus on the coaching staff, will share the defensive coordinator duties.
"We changed and tweaked some things. We have to be more of an attacking unit," Warren said. "We have to press the issue. That doesn't mean we're going to blitz 90 percent in games. Some of that is just the mentality of our players. Don't read, just hit your gap and blow it up."
Sophomore Nick Fitzgerald (6-4, 255) isn't listed as a returning starter, but he started seven games at right defensive end and played in all 13 as a freshman. He finished with 24 tackles. Sophomore Joe Champaign (6-1, 230) also played defensive end as a freshman last season and had 11 tackles in nine games.
"Both had good springs but need to become more consistent," Warren said. "They are really showing us they have the ability as young guys. We may have had to cut our teeth with them early, but that gave them some invaluable experience, and they are coming in more confident."
Two seniors will split time at nose guard, and Warren said they are in a "fierce battle" for the starting job: Cody Miller (6-2, 255) and Nick DeJulio (6-2, 230). They combined for 25 tackles last season.
As of now this isn't the deepest of positions. Others who could compete for playing time include junior Dana Luebbe (6-3, 245) and sophomores Riley Cannon (6-4, 235) and Troy Timmerman (6-3, 250).
Senior Alex Means (6-5, 230) is the leading returning tackler with 77 and was an honorable mention all-conference pick a year ago. He made a team-best six sacks from his outside position. He's not only the most productive player returning, he's a leader.
"Alex is definitely a guy that has played so much and played so well that he has stepped up to the forefront and tried to lead these guys -- both vocally and by example," Warren said.
Senior Brian Lindsay (6-1, 220) started one game, played in 11 and finished with 42 tackles in 2011. He's another guy that can play outside but also may play in the defensive backfield. Senior Stephan Atrice (6-1, 200) and junior Jamil Cooks (6-4, 210) also are experienced along the outside. Cooks made six starts last season and made 50 tackles. Atrice made 20.
The most experienced inside linebacker is senior Austin Niklas (6-2, 230), who had 35 tackles and four for loss in 2011. Other guys that could be in the mix include seniors James Chambers (5-11, 220) and Josh Kusan (6-0, 210). Chambers played in all 13 games last season and 35 in his career.
No matter who's out there at linebacker, they will play a big role in how Warren wants the entire defense to play.
"We challenged them to be more of an aggressive, downhill unit that takes the field with a swagger in pursuit of the football," he said. "I thought the kids gravitated to that and pressed the issue in the spring. If they were wrong, they were wrong going 100 miles per hour."
"We have to be confident in the things we do and can't sit back and wait. We need to get people in second- and third and long and avoid third-and-shorts. We need to make quarterbacks and teams feel uncomfortable early, not late."
Only one regular starter returns: junior strong safety Anthony Wooding, Jr. (6-2, 183), who was fifth on the team last season with 57 tackles.
But the other players counted on to start or contribute have played and started multiple games in their careers.
The two probable starters at cornerback are juniors Steffon Batts (6-0, 180) and Chris Miller (5-8, 185). Batts played in all 13 games in 2011 and Miller played in nine. They combined for 37 tackles and Miller broke up three passes.
Warren mentioned Lindsay as a linebacker, but he started four games at strong safety in 2011 and has 30 games of experience.
"Even though there are three new faces, they're not new to the package, the scheme or to playing on Saturdays in critical games," Warren said. "Now they have to go out and not do it 20 times a game, but 60 times a game over a long stretch. The consistency needs to progress."
Sophomores Jordan Mays (6-1, 190) and Bobby Watkins III (6-1, 187) are youngsters Warren likes and that had good springs.
The Falcons' leading kickoff and punt returners are gone, but there are guys on the roster with experience at both.
Hunter returned four punts for 44 yards. Lee, LaCoste, Getz and MacArthur combined for 21 kickoff returns. Three of the four averaged 22 yards or more per return and had longs of more than 30 yards.
Air Force must find a new long snapper after the departure of senior Colton Reid.
Senior Parker Herrington (6-1, 185) was a first-team All-Mountain West selection last season. He made 15 of 18 field goals, the highest percentage in the conference. He was 2 of 4 from 40-49 yards. He made 45 of 48 extra points and led the team with 90 points.
Junior David Baska (6-0, 182) returns after averaging 40.8 yards per punt in 2011, but the Falcons averaged just 35.5 net yards per punt. "We've got to punt better," Calhoun said. "We've always been pretty good at net punting and that one exception was last fall. We didn't punt with near the distance or hang time we need."
Baska had seven punts of 50-plus yards and downed six inside the 20.
Air Force does not release names of new recruits until they arrive on campus in the summer. Incoming players don't sign National Letters of Intent. They sign a Certificate of Intent, which is a non-binding agreement that signifies an athlete's commitment to follow through with the appointment process.
There is no redshirting at Air Force, but there is a prep school that is like a junior varsity level for younger players to get acclimated with Air Force life and Air Force football.
Six former high school quarterbacks were part of last year's class, and the best prospect this year appears to be Je'rod Evans (6-4, 190) from Mansfield, Texas, who those close to the Air Force program say is in the mold of Jefferson. As is the case at all service academies, Calhoun and his staff recruited well across the nation.
Steven Cornellier (6-3, 230) was No. 69 in ESPN's Top 100 defensive ends coming out of Bishop Kenny High in Jacksonville, Fla.
The Falcons landed one of the better Arizona high school prospects in cornerback Gavin McHenry (6-0, 170) who has been timed at 10.57 seconds in the 100-meter dash and 21.59 in the 200. ESPN ranked him the No. 91 cornerback in its Top 100 list in 2012. Two other recruits also made ESPN's Top 100 cornerbacks: Cody Ray (5-11, 175) from North Miami Beach, Fla., at No. 82, and Desmond Lewis (6-0, 165) from Elk Grove, Calif. at No. 84.
Perhaps the best get in this class was Tampa, Fla., defensive end/tight end/receiver Reggie Barnes (6-2, 215) from Berkeley Prep. Barnes had offers from Arizona State, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, among others. He will probably be a linebacker at Air Force.
If Herrington falters at kicker, the Falcons plan to bring in an all-state guy in Drew Oehrle (6-0, 148) of Indianapolis.
It's common for service academies to recruit many of the same players, and Air Force won recruiting battles over Navy for defensive ends Ryan Watson (6-3, 220) and David Harris (6-0, 240), running backs Markez Davis (6-0, 195) and Nnaji Omenye (5-7, 193), offensive lineman Brandon Greene (6-3, 260) and defensive linemen Randy Frost (6-4, 230) and Tanner Flemming (6-2, 275). It also beat Army for defensive back Jalen Noble (5-11, 180), whose father played at Army. Even though he missed his entire senior season with a knee injury, Kola Alli (6-1, 210) of Kennedale, Texas, was rated as the No. 99 outside linebacker by ESPN RecruitingNation.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
Despite a lot of holes to fill, it's tough to think Air Force won't be a factor in the Mountain West picture this season.
Calhoun has proven he can get the job done with young, unproven teams as well as with veteran ones.
It's vital QB Connor Dietz plays well, especially in the pass game, and a lot of that will depend on who emerges as reliable receivers. Air Force's offense is largely one-dimensional with the run as is, but if there's not a threat of a play-action pass for a big play, that will make it tougher for the Falcons to be effective.
Seven or eight victories would be impressive for this group, but at the very least the team should win six and qualify for its sixth straight bowl game. If Air Force avoids key injuries and has certain players make progress throughout the season, it will win some games it shouldn't and make a run at its third straight CIC Trophy.
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