No. 48: Air Force
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 17, 2010
T.C.U., Utah and B.Y.U. run the Mountain West. This power trio has made a home in the Top 25, with the Horned Frogs and Utes breaking into the B.C.S. over the last handful of seasons. Lost in the shuffle has been Air Force, which has resumed its status as a perennial bowl participant under Troy Calhoun. The former Academy quarterback took over a program mired in three consecutive losing campaigns; the Falcons have won at least eight games in each of three seasons at the helm. There’s a reason Calhoun’s name is bandied about when discussing high-profile job openings: the man can coach, and then some. But there are reasons his Falcons have been unable to break into the top three of the Mountain West, factors largely out of his control: T.C.U., B.Y.U. and Utah, to name three.
Colorado Springs, Colo.
10 (5 offense, 5 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 4
- Sept. 11
- Sept. 18
- Sept. 25
- Oct. 2
- Oct. 9
- Oct. 16
at San Diego St.
- Oct. 23
- Oct. 30
- Nov. 6
- Nov. 13
- Nov. 18
Last year’s prediction
But there’s plenty to like, starting with the young backfield combination of Clark and Jefferson and continuing with a stellar secondary. The team will also excel in the turnover battle, giving it a leg up over the competition. And, most important, the team has a terrific young coach in Calhoun, who has shown nothing but promise since taking over the program in 2007. Add it all together, and you get another eight-win season from the Falcons.
In a nutshell Was Air Force the best five-loss team in the country in 2010? That may be pushing it. But it’s impossible to ignore the resume — of losses: by seven points at Minnesota, christening its new off-campus stadium; by a field goal at Navy; three points to then-No. 10 T.C.U.; a touchdown at then-No. 19 Utah; and at B.Y.U., albeit it by 17 points. Perhaps the Falcons had no meaningful wins during the regular season. I think we can go with that; Wyoming was the most impressive. Any belief that this team was doing it with smoke and mirrors evaporated in a thorough, top-to-bottom, left-to-right demolition of powerful Houston in the Armed Forces Bowl. Florida’s bowl win was impressive; so was Nebraska’s, B.Y.U.’s and Navy’s. Air Force was right up there.
High point The dominating win over Houston. The game marked the third time the two teams had met in the past 16 months, and it gave Air Force a 2-1 advantage against a team that finds itself on the opposite end of the offensive spectrum. Good defense beats good offense, and vice versa. I’ve never understood what that means, to be honest.
Low point Yet again, losses to the top three teams in the stout Mountain West: Utah, B.Y.U. and T.C.U. Air Force can take little solace in the fact that last season’s defeats were far narrower than in 2008, when the Falcons had their doors kicked in by T.C.U.
Tidbit Air Force has played in three consecutive Armed Forces Bowls, winning last season against Houston after dropping the first two games by single-digits. While strange, this is not the first time the Falcons have played in the same bowl for three consecutive seasons. Air Force appeared in four straight Liberty Bowls from 1989-92, when the program was run by Fisher DeBerry. The three consecutive seasons with at least eight wins is also not a school record: Air Force won at least eight games each year from 1982-85.
Tidbit (rushing edition) Here’s an old faithful. Air Force has finished in the top nine nationally in rushing each season since 1987, leading the country in rushing in 2002. The Falcons have led the Mountain West in rushing each year since joining the conference in 1999.
Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:
Air Force has participated in 20 bowl games in its 54 years as a program, or in a little more than 37 percent of the seasons in its history. Can you name the 10 programs with a higher percentage of bowl games per seasons of existence?
Teams already spoken for: Arizona (Zaboo), California (katster), Georgia Tech (DivePlay), Navy (Shawn), Texas (Noefli), Texas A&M (Dr. Norris Camacho), T.C.U. (Burnt Orange), Texas Tech (Freakville), Virginia Tech (James), Wake Forest (jjtiller) and Washington (Dr. Klahn).
Former players in the N.F.L.
2 DT Ben Garland (Denver), WR Chad Hall (Philadelphia).
Arbitrary top five list
1. Orville and Wilbur Wright.
2. Charles Lindbergh.
3. Chuck Yeager.
4. Amelia Earhart.
5. Jimmy Doolittle.
Troy Calhoun (Air Force ‘89), 26-14 after three seasons with the Falcons. After going 9-4 in 2007, Calhoun and the Falcons have grabbed matching eight-win finishes in each of the last two seasons. That gave the program its most wins over a three-year span since winning 28 from 1996-98. The last two seasons have served as a clear indication that this program is back on the map in the Mountain West, and should be considered a yearly participant in bowl play. Only the sixth coach in program history (Air Force’s first team was in 1956), Calhoun inherited the difficult task of replacing Fisher DeBerry, by far Air Force’s winningest coach (169-109-1). Calhoun’s first season exceeded expectations: nine wins, tying Ben Martin for the most by a first-year coach in program history, and a trip to the Armed Forces Bowl, the team’s first bowl appearance since 2002. Air Force experienced a five-game improvement over a 4-8 2006 season, the third-largest turnaround in the F.B.S. In recognition of this progress, Calhoun was honored as the Mountain West coach of the year and was a finalist for national coach of the year. The Academy realizes what it has in Calhoun; it rewarded his tremendous 2007 season with a five-year extension, hoping to keep the 42-year-old Calhoun at his alma mater for the foreseeable future. A former quarterback and assistant with the Falcons (1989-94), Calhoun has also served as an assistant at Ohio (1995-2000) and Wake Forest (2001-2) – both stops under Jim Grobe – and with the Denver Broncos (2003-5) and the Houston Texans (2006). Calhoun was the offensive coordinator with the Texans, helping Houston triple its victory total from 2005.
Players to watch
The Falcons have a nice one-two punch at quarterback in juniors Tim Jefferson and Connor Dietz. The pair shared duties under center last fall, though Dietz saw his season end early due to hand injury. Both are dangerous as rushers, of course. Jefferson rushed for 254 yards and 4 touchdowns last, adding 848 yards through the air; Dietz finished with 197 yards passing and another 369 yards on the ground. Look for a similar situation to last season: Jefferson will start, Dietz will be called upon in certain situations as his replacement. While Air Force is in great shape at quarterback, both are coming off of injuries. Jefferson missed most of the spring while recovering from knee surgery, while Dietz’s hand injury cost him the final five games of 2009. Calhoun recently remarked that even if Jefferson puts an even stronger stranglehold on the starting job, he’d create special packages to get Dietz on the field.
The backfield is equally loaded at running back. Well, running back and fullback, if I’m to be precise. The pair of fullback Jared Tew (970 yards rushing, 9 touchdowns) and tailback Asher Clark (865 yards, 7 scores) finished one-two on the team in rushing. This duo’s potency was especially clear in Air Force’s bowl win over Houston: Tew rushed for 173 yards, Clark for another 129, while each scored a pair of touchdowns. More options exist in seniors Savier Stephens (417 yards rushing, third on the team) and Nathan Walker (218 yards, 2 scores), with sophomore Darius Jones, little-used last fall, expected to earn more carries. In all, Air Force returns 100 percent of his rushing output from a season ago. Yes, that’s right, 100 percent. Best total in the country, or at least tied for first.
The receivers do some work on the ground as well, of course. Junior Jonathan Warzeka, for instance, rushed for 267 yards in addition to his 18-reception, 246-yard 2009 campaign. If Air Force is to put the ball in the air, however — as the Falcons did to great results against Houston — the ball is more often than not headed towards senior Kevin Fogler, who led the team in receptions (25), receiving yards (567), yards per catch average (22.7) and touchdowns (5). Unlike Chad Hall — one of the most underrated skill players in recent N.C.A.A. history — Fogler is strictly an option in the passing game; a very good option, I should add. The receiver corps will also welcome back senior Kyle Halderman from injury, which will greatly improve depth.
There’s no need for superlatives. For a proper illustration of this Air Force secondary, simply pop in the game tape of the bowl win over Houston. I’ll wait. Dominating, right? Even with two lost contributors — Chris Thomas, most notably — the Falcons should remain equally strong against the pass in 2010. Cornerbacks Reggie Rembert (43 tackles, 3 interceptions) and Anthony Wright (54 tackles, conference-leading 7 interceptions) can match up with any receiver pair in the Mountain West. Both earned all-conference honors last fall: Rembert second-team, Wright first-team. The Falcons will miss Thomas at strong safety, but return productive junior Jon Davis (56 tackles, 3 picks). Sophomore Brian Lindsay is the leader to replace Thomas. Air Force spend a significant amount of time in five defensive back sets; the Falcons have what it takes — and more — against the pass.
The biggest loss on defense is that of nose tackle Ben Garland, a productive, all-conference performer in his final season. Garland is one of two losses among Air Force’s three-man front, joining end Myles Morales. The lone returning starter is senior Rick Ricketts, who finished tied for second on team in sacks, trailing Garland, with four. The task of replacing Garland will fall to junior Ryan Gardner, one of a handful of returning linemen to serve as part of the rotation a year ago. Senior Wylie Wikstrom is another: he’ll step in for Morales.
The story at linebacker is the return of past starters Ken Lamendola and Patrick Hennessey, seniors who saw their junior campaigns cut short by injury. Should this duo return to the starting lineup — I’d be shocked if they didn’t — they’ll join junior Andre Morris (65 tackles, 6.5 for loss, 3 sacks) to give the Falcons a talented, productive trio. Lamendola, who cracked the 100-tackle mark in 2008, will be pushed by junior Wale Lawal in the middle. Seeing that Air Force plays with four linebackers in its base set, Lawal could also be an option alongside Lamendola at middle linebacker.
The Falcons have a strong kicker in junior Erik Soderberg, who set a new school record last fall with 22 made field goals. The team does face a hole at punter, however, given the departure of Brandon Geyer. Senior Keil Bartholomew is poised to replace Geyer, but he’ll face a daunting task: Geyer took full advantage of the thin air in Colorado Springs, ranking among the top punter nationally with a net average of 39.5 yards per kick.
Position battles to watch
Offensive line All five starting offensive linemen from 2009 must be replaced. Included among this group were three all-conference performers: Chris Campbell, Nick Charles and Peter Lusk. Supplanting this front will be a formidable task, even for a veteran assistant like offensive line coach Clay Hendrix, a 23-year veteran of the Air Force staff. It was somewhat heartening, however, to see that — by and large — Air Force was able to identify all five starters during the spring. The leader of this largely unproven group will be junior right guard A.J. Wallerstein, the only lineman to bring any meaningful action in the 2010 season. Wallerstein was a member of the line rotation last fall, making one start. He’ll share the strong side with senior tackle Chase Darden; sophomore Jason Kons grabbed the starting nod at left tackle; and junior Michael Hester expected to start at center. Again, most times, such a rebuilding job would spell a jumbled depth chart as a team entered the summer, if not the season opener. There will be some competition at left guard, however. Senior Tyler Schonsheck holds the edge, but sophomore Nick Jackson is another option at weak side guard.
Game(s) to watch
Navy and Army, games played for the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy. After winning six straight from 1997-2002, Air Force has taken a back seat during Navy’s renaissance. It would be nice to see the Falcons beat one of the top three teams in the Mountain West, but Air Force’s season will be made in how it fares against the rest of its schedule: Wyoming, New Mexico, Colorado State and the rest.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell Another year, another fourth-place finish in the Mountain West. As if there’s anything wrong with that. If the Falcons held Independent status like their friends in Annapolis, there’s no question this team would, like Navy, challenge for 10 wins. They don’t, of course, and will be hard-pressed to do anything more than repeat last season’s 5-3 conference mark. Having said that: if there was a year where Air Force could break into the top three in the M.W.C., this is it. The Falcons are in great shape everywhere but the two lines. The defensive line does worry me a bit, yes. The offensive line? Not that much, to be honest. Regardless of who starts — though experience always helps — the Falcons will run the ball, run again, run some more. And do it well, as they always do. The rest of the roster is in terrific shape. The offensive backfield is loaded; the defensive backfield more so. The pieces are very much in place to duplicate last season’s eight-win mark. Unfortunately, the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy still goes through Navy. Is there a gap between the top three and Air Force? Yes. Still, in my opinion, the gap between Air Force and the rest of the Mountain West is larger.
Dream season For the first time under Calhoun, Air Force finishes among the top three in the Mountain West. Better yet, the Falcons beat both Navy and Army.
Nightmare season Air Force slides under .500 for the first time since 2006, the year prior to Calhoun’s arrival.
In case you were wondering
Where do Air Force fans congregate? Not many options. The best message board chatter can be found at AFAFalcons. Additional coverage can be found at Jake Schaller’s blog for The Colorado Springs Gazette.
Who is No. 47? A former coach for out next program shared his name with a slugging outfielder who twice paced the junior circuit in home runs.
Tags: Air Force, Troy Calhoun
Leave a Comment