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1. Four straight years
Even when you succeed for a while in a hard job, the difficulty often catches up to you. Recruiting loses its edge. A successful assistant departs, and you cannot account for his absence.
A hard job continues to be hard. It never gets easier, even when you do it well at first.
In his first four seasons in charge of the Air Force Academy's football program, Troy Calhoun won 34 games; in 2010, his Falcons spent some time in the top 25 and won nine games for just the second time since 1998. But the fade was already beginning. Air Force ranked 26th in the F/+ rankings in 2009 but fell to 44th in 2010, 68th in 2011, 101st in 2012, and 113th in 2013. And after winning 8.5 games per season in his first four years, Calhoun has only won eight games total in his last two.
Where have things gone wrong for Air Force? Well, the offense hasn't been quite as good the last couple of years -- the Falcons fell from 32nd to 82nd in Off. F/+ in 2012 and rebounded only to 64th last year -- but the problems have come on defense. Tim DeRuyter was the coordinator for a spectacular, aggressive unit in 2009, one that ranked 12th in the country in Def. F/+. But when he left to become the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M (he's now the Fresno State head coach), Air Force fell to 47th in 2010, then completely and totally fell apart; the Falcons ranked 82nd in 2011, 99th in 2012, and 122nd in 2013.
Always outmanned physically, Air Force has leaned on an option offense to move the ball, and 2012 aside, it's been pretty effective. Thanks to Calhoun's history as an offensive coach in the NFL, Air Force has utilized more zone blocking and rushing principles than other service academies or option offenses, but the output is familiar. But since DeRuyter's departure, Calhoun has had neither the players nor the scheme to stop anybody. The Falcons allowed 4.4 yards per play to Colgate in last season's opener and had reasonable success against service academies (Navy averaged 5.4 yards per play, Army 5.0). The other nine opponents averaged 6.9 yards per play. Notre Dame passed all over the Falcons; New Mexico and UNLV ran all over them. Utah State, Boise State, Wyoming, Nevada, San Diego State, and Colorado State did both.
Until the defensive woes get addressed, nothing else matters. The Air Force offense should be pretty good, though inexperience on the line is relatively scary. But the second coming of Dee Dowis could emerge to run the Falcons' option, and it wouldn't matter unless Air Force could make some stops.
Three years ago, it was a big deal that Troy Calhoun was remaining at Air Force. Thanks to his success at Air Force and his background in the NFL (he was a Broncos assistant for three years and was the Texans' offensive coordinator in 2006), he was a candidate for the vacant Tennessee job in both 2009 and 2010.
Three years later, it was again noteworthy that he remained in charge despite a complete collapse in the win column. His contract runs through 2015; he probably has 12 to 24 more games to figure out how to engineer a rebound.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 2-10 | Adj. Record: 1-11 | Final F/+ Rk: 113|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|31-Aug||Colgate||N/A||38-13||W||31.0 - 37.6||L|
|7-Sep||Utah State||32||20-52||L||24.9 - 46.6||L|
|13-Sep||at Boise State||45||20-42||L||26.1 - 40.6||L|
|21-Sep||Wyoming||102||17-28||L||30.0 - 43.8||L|
|28-Sep||at Nevada||88||42-45||L||32.1 - 37.6||L||-12.4|
|5-Oct||at Navy||58||10-28||L||19.6 - 23.5||L||-11.9|
|10-Oct||San Diego State||89||20-27||L||23.6 - 35.8||L||-10.0|
|26-Oct||Notre Dame||26||10-45||L||24.7 - 38.7||L||-9.9|
|2-Nov||Army||100||42-28||W||37.4 - 30.2||W||-5.7|
|8-Nov||at New Mexico||110||37-45||L||25.4 - 37.2||L||-6.9|
|21-Nov||UNLV||96||21-41||L||22.1 - 41.5||L||-10.0|
|30-Nov||at Colorado State||66||13-58||L||17.7 - 42.1||L||-12.5|
|Points Per Game||24.2||92||37.7||113|
|Adj. Points Per Game||26.2||83||37.9||119|
2. Simply outmanned
Against an FCS team and two other service academies, Air Force still wasn't a great team, but the Falcons were still competitive. They went 2-1 in these three games. The other nine games? Not even close.
Adj. Points Per Game (vs. Colgate, Army, Navy): Opponent 30.4, Air Force 29.3 (minus-1.1)
Adj. Points Per Game (other 9 games): Opponent 40.4, Air Force 25.2 (minus-15.2)
Some faulty turnovers luck didn't help matters and certainly contributed to Air Force's 0-3 record in one-possession games. But when you lose three games by single digits, and your other seven losses come by an average of 26.1 points, you're clearly dealing with minimal margin for error. Taking opponent into account, the Falcons' offense was close to average in 2013, which is reasonably impressive considering a freshman quarterback was running the show for a good portion of the year.
But the defense just never had a chance.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||46.5%||26||Succ. Rt. +||96.2||75|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||31.3||96||Def. FP+||96.4||94|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.6||41||Redzone S&P+||114.2||20|
|Q1 Rk||92||1st Down Rk||85|
|Q2 Rk||75||2nd Down Rk||79|
|Q3 Rk||83||3rd Down Rk||112|
3. The offense wasn't the problem, but...
I've already said it a couple of times, but again, the offense wasn't the reason Air Force fell to 2-10 in 2013. Even when quarterback Jaleel Awini, the rare three-star recruit, got suspended after four games and ceded the job (he ended up transferring to Colorado), first to sophomore Karson Roberts, then to freshman Nate Romine, the Falcons continued to post decent yardage and point totals at times. They averaged 7.3 yards per play against Nevada in the first game post-Awini, and while the totals dried up a bit down the stretch, they still averaged 5.2 yards per play or better in six of 12 games.
Still ... this offense could and should be better. Air Force averaged just 4.4 yards per play against Notre Dame, UNLV, and Colorado State and scored 23 points or fewer eight times. The passing game improved when Romine took over (for the season, however, there were far too many drops and miscues, even considering Air Force doesn't pass much), but he wasn't as effective at running the option. And for the season, there just weren't enough big plays.
Mike Thiessen, now the full-time offensive coordinator after sharing the job previously, stressed the need to just "get good at something" this spring, and that "something" is likely to be the triple option. We'll see if that means Romine holds onto the starting job, or if someone like former starter Kale Pearson, who injured his knee in 2012, ends up overtaking him.
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Nate Romine||5'11, 195||So.||2 stars (5.2)||44||81||603||5||1||54.3%||6||6.9%||7.5|
|Karson Roberts||6'0, 185||Jr.||NR||21||41||273||3||2||51.2%||1||2.4%||6.4|
|Kale Pearson (2012)||5'9, 175||Sr.||NR||12||29||128||0||4||41.4%||2||6.5%||3.8|
|Broam Hart||FB||6'0, 220||Sr.||2 stars (5.1)||113||469||6||4.2||2.2||38.9%|
|Nate Romine||QB||5'11, 195||So.||2 stars (5.2)||69||252||3||3.7||3.0||31.9%|
|Jon Lee||RB||5'10, 195||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||66||429||3||6.5||4.9||53.0%|
|Karson Roberts||QB||6'0, 185||Jr.||NR||48||258||3||5.4||4.8||41.7%|
|Devin Rushing||RB||5'10, 180||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||41||171||1||4.2||2.5||41.5%|
|Sam Gagliano||WR||5'9, 185||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||27||197||0||7.3||8.0||51.9%|
|D.J. Johnson||FB||5'9, 210||So.||NR||19||72||1||3.8||1.6||31.6%|
|Colton Huntsman||QB||5'10, 175||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||15||68||2||4.5||2.4||46.7%|
|Paco Solano||FB||5'11, 210||Jr.||NR||12||44||0||3.7||1.0||50.0%|
|Garrett Brown||WR||5'9, 170||Jr.||NR||8||34||1||4.3||3.5||37.5%|
|Jacobi Owens||RB||5'11, 185||So.||NR|
|Nnaji Omenye||RB||5'7, 193||So.||NR|
|Garrett Brown||WR||5'9, 170||Jr.||NR||28||19||237||67.9%||17.5%||63.2%||8.5||13||10.1||29.1|
|Jalen Robinette||WR||6'3, 220||So.||NR||27||16||291||59.3%||16.9%||50.0%||10.8||89||8.7||35.7|
|Sam Gagliano||WR||5'9, 185||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||27||13||233||48.1%||16.9%||58.3%||8.6||49||9.6||28.6|
|Garrett Griffin||TE||6'4, 225||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||21||13||163||61.9%||13.1%||57.9%||7.8||2||8.6||20.0|
|Myles Barnes||WR||6'4, 220||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||12||4||41||33.3%||7.5%||45.5%||3.4||-30||3.4||5.0|
|Alex Ludowig||WR||5'11, 170||Jr.||NR||11||6||86||54.5%||6.9%||40.0%||7.8||7||4.3||10.6|
|Marcus Hendricks||TE||6'6, 240||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||10||6||74||60.0%||6.3%||50.0%||7.4||-1||7.0||9.1|
|Colton Huntsman||WR||5'10, 175||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||8||4||27||50.0%||5.0%||100.0%||3.4||-28||3.0||3.3|
|Jon Lee||RB||5'10, 195||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||4||3||5||75.0%||2.5%||75.0%||1.3||-29||1.2||0.6|
|Devin Rushing||RB||5'10, 180||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||1||1||5||100.0%||0.6%||N/A||5.0||-5||0.0||0.6|
4. Wanted: big plays
An option offense is a good way for undersized offenses to carve out five to seven yards at a time. It is an efficiency-based system and always has been.
But without big plays, you need extreme precision -- without big gains, it's going to take you 10-15 plays (and 10-15 opportunities for mistakes) to move 80 yards -- something that is difficult to pull off with a first-time starting quarterback. Air Force went through three different QBs in 2013 and did alright, but a few big plays would have helped immensely. Despite play-action potential, only two of Air Force's top five receivers averaged better than 12.5 yards per catch, and of the seven players with at least 30 carries last year, only one averaged better than 5.0 highlight yards per opportunity. Navy carves out frequently moderate to big gains with its slotbacks. Georgia Tech dominates with the play action from time to time. An option offense can produce big plays, but Air Force simply didn't last year. (The early loss of leading receiver Ty MacArthur didn't help that, obviously.)
If nothing else, be on the lookout for big Jalen Robinette in the passing game and emerging sophomore Jacobi Owens in the run game. If Air Force's explosiveness improves in 2014, these two will be primary reasons for it.
|Michael Husar, Jr.||C||6'0, 270||Sr.||NR||13|
|Matt Rochell||LT||6'3, 260||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||12|
|Andrew Ruechel||RG||6'1, 240||Jr.||NR||0|
|Arinze Uzo-Okereke||OL||6'5, 280||Jr.||NR||0|
|Jimmy Manuel||OL||6'3, 275||Sr.||NR||0|
|David Jones||OL||6'0, 250||Sr.||NR||0|
|Sevrin Remmo||OL||6'3, 225||Jr.||NR||0|
The Air Force roster is a tricky thing. Many soon-to-be freshmen are not officially on the spring roster yet, and it's hard to say for sure who will stay or go from year to year. That said, even with extra context stripped away, go to Air Force's 2014 spring roster (as of April 14), and count the offensive linemen.
You'll find seven. Total. Seven offensive linemen. I went ahead and listed all of them above.
Again, more will show up on the roster this fall. That's fine. Air Force isn't a couple of injuries away from playing a four-man line or moving a wide receiver to tackle or something. But if you want to find something that screams "DEPTH ISSUES!!!" this is it. Of the 10 players listed on the two-deep at the end of last year, seven are gone and an eighth (Andrew Ruechel) is a 240-pounder with no starting experience.
You can get away with a lack of size in an option offense, but a lack of size mixed with a complete lack of continuity? That's scary. Air Force will already be battling inexperience at running back and, probably, quarterback. A sketchy line will make precision and efficiency very, very difficult.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||54.8%||125||Succ. Rt. +||76.6||123|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||26.4||116||Off. FP+||93.5||116|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||5.5||123||Redzone S&P+||75.2||123|
|Q1 Rk||121||1st Down Rk||117|
|Q2 Rk||112||2nd Down Rk||117|
|Q3 Rk||107||3rd Down Rk||116|
6. Bend and break
In 2013, Air Force's pass defense was pretty awful. In an attempt to mitigate big plays with a thin secondary, Falcon cornerbacks played tissue-soft coverage, and combined with a lack of a pass rush (especially on standard downs), Air Force finished with a No. 120 ranking in Passing S&P+.
This didn't matter in the least, as opponents rarely actually had to pass. They were content with gashing the Air Force run defense, early and often. Granted, playing Army, Navy, and New Mexico skewed these numbers a bit, but opponents ran the ball 68 percent of the time on standard downs and 45 percent on passing downs, each well above the national average. Air Force was able to blitz reasonably well, but that didn't really matter since the Falcons rarely leveraged offenses into blitzing opportunities. They made almost no big plays against the run, got pushed over in short-yardage situations, and generally offered minimal resistance overall.
The pass defense was designed for a bend-don't-break approach; the run defense just broke.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Alex Hansen||DE||6'2, 260||Jr.||NR||12||27.0||3.7%||2.0||0.0||0||2||1||0|
|Nick Fitzgerald||DE||6'4, 265||Sr.||NR||12||22.5||3.0%||1.5||1.0||0||1||1||0|
|David Harris||NG||6'0, 255||So.||2 stars (5.4)||10||17.5||2.4%||2.5||2.5||0||1||0||0|
|Ryan Watson||DE||6'3, 240||So.||NR||11||17.5||2.4%||2.5||1.5||0||0||0||0|
|Robert Green||DE||6'2, 245||Sr.||NR||4||10.5||1.4%||3.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Troy Timmerman||NG||6'2, 260||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||12||7.5||1.0%||0.5||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Riley Cannon||NG||6'4, 260||Sr.||NR||11||6.0||0.8%||0.5||0.0||0||1||1||0|
|Joseph Champaign||DE||6'1, 240||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||2||3.0||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Dillon Beschel||DE||6'5, 240||Sr.||NR||7||2.0||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Joey Nichol||ILB||6'1, 230||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||9||62.5||8.5%||7.5||1.0||0||1||0||0|
|Spencer Proctor||ILB||6'2, 207||Sr.||NR||12||58.5||7.9%||5.0||2.0||0||0||1||0|
|Jared Jones||OLB||6'2, 230||Sr.||NR||10||26.5||3.6%||2.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Donnie Wharton||OLB||6'0, 215||Sr.||NR||11||15.5||2.1%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kristov George||OLB||6'1, 215||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||7||15.0||2.0%||2.0||0.0||1||0||0||0|
|Connor Healy||ILB||6'0, 225||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||9||12.5||1.7%||0.5||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Steven Sumpter||ILB||6'2, 220||Sr.||NR||12||2.5||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
7. New names on staff
Since he can't do much about the on-field personnel at the moment, Troy Calhoun shook up his defensive staff to try to address deficiencies.
Steve Russ is now the full-time defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach (he was co-coordinator and linebackers coach previously), and two experienced sets of hands have joined the staff. Ron Vanderlinden is the new inside linebackers coach, and Tim Cross is the new defensive line coach. Vanderlinden is the former Maryland head coach (1997-00), and he spent the last 13 seasons as Penn State's linebackers coach before James Franklin took over. Cross, meanwhile, was Mack Brown's strength and conditioning coach at Texas from 2001-04, spent five seasons as an FBS defensive line coach (two at Syracuse, three at Minnesota). He began his career as a high school coach in Colorado and played at Northern Colorado in his college days.
Russ is promising more aggressive coverage at cornerback, and Vanderlinden certainly has a strong track record when it comes to coaxing production from potential at linebacker. Combine that with the return of most contributors from last year's two-deep, and you've got nearly guaranteed defensive improvement in 2014. But how much? Ranking 110th in Def. F/+ would be improvement; it wouldn't be enough, however.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Dexter Walker||SS||6'0, 205||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||12||75.0||10.1%||4.5||2||0||3||3||0|
|Christian Spears||FS||5'9, 185||Sr.||NR||12||67.5||9.1%||1||0||2||3||0||0|
|Gavin McHenry||CB||6'0, 180||Jr.||NR||12||57.5||7.8%||0||0||0||5||0||0|
|Justin DeCoud||CB||5'10, 180||Sr.||NR||11||25.5||3.5%||0||0||0||2||0||0|
|Jamal Byrd||SS||5'11, 195||Sr.||NR||10||24.0||3.2%||0||0||1||1||0||0|
|Weston Steelhammer||FS||6'2, 200||So.||2 stars (5.3)||8||5.5||0.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jordan Mays||CB||6'1, 190||Sr.||NR|
|Kalon Baker||CB||6'0, 175||Jr.||NR|
|Roland Lapido||CB||5'10, 185||So.||NR|
8. Nichol and Walker need help
Tighter, more aggressive coverage at cornerback is great ... if you have cornerbacks who can play tighter, more aggressive coverage without getting burned repeatedly. The Falcons actually did well in preventing big plays last year while allowing short, efficient plays to burn them over and over. In order to fix one deficiency, you might be opening up another one.
There are a couple of known play-makers on this defense, but they need help. Joey Nichol is a solid tackler at inside linebacker, but he also made 6.5 non-sack tackles for loss, easily the most on the team. (Actually, nobody else had 6.5 TOTAL tackles for loss.) Safety Dexter Walker, meanwhile, is a hard hitter and a forceful presence near the line. Air Force has both experience and some reasonably proven players in the middle of the defense.
But who else steps up? Does tight coverage make a star out of projected starting cornerbacks Gavin McHenry and Justin DeCoud, or a bigger defensive back like Jordan Mays? Can a newer batch of outside linebackers provide any attacking presence at all? Can nose guard David Marris make a few more plays to offset the ones he's going to allow as a 255-pound defensive tackle in a 3-4 defense? Again, almost by default, things will get better this year for Air Force's defense. But unless some new defenders break through, the defense will only improve a little bit. It needs to improve a lot.
|Will Conant||6'2, 215||Sr.||32-33||5-5||100.0%||6-8||75.0%|
|Sam Gagliano||KR||5'9, 185||Sr.||3||22.0||0|
|Garrett Brown||PR||5'9, 170||Jr.||5||2.8||0|
|Sam Gagliano||PR||5'9, 185||Sr.||2||4.5||0|
|Special Teams F/+||93|
|Field Goal Efficiency||3|
|Punt Return Efficiency||123|
|Kick Return Efficiency||90|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||15|
9. A sure three points
Air Force had no return threat whatsoever and didn't punt (or cover) very well. But in Will Conant, the Falcons did have one bona fide special teams weapon. Conant was automatic under 40 yards and was nearly automatic beyond, making three of four field goals from 40 to 49 yards and another three of four from beyond 50. Air Force needs seven-point scores, not three-pointers, but the Falcons also simply need as many strengths as they can get.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|13-Sep||at Georgia State||125|
|11-Oct||at Utah State||69|
|21-Nov||at San Diego State||83|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-5.4% (74)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||104|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-4 / 0.7|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||15 (6, 9)|
10. This a hard job
No redshirts. Endurance requirements that keep the players relatively small. A successful Navy program siphoning off a decent amount of the talent available and willing to attend a service academy. Potential budget cuts.
This is, and will always be, a really hard job. When Calhoun took over in 2007, he re-energized a program that needed a boost after trailing off in Fisher DeBerry's final seasons on the job. But that energy has dissipated, and after losing a tremendous defensive coordinator in Tim DeRuyter, Calhoun just hasn't been able to figure out ways to stem defensive regression.
In 2014, Air Force's offense should be some shade of competent, the defense should improve at least a little bit, and the schedule will feature six opponents projected 100th or worse. For all of these reasons, I would be shocked if the win total didn't improve at least a little bit.
But Air Force itself ranked only 113th last year, and improvement might not get the Falcons out of the triple digits themselves. There will be a rebound, but it's hard for me to envision a good enough bounce to get them back into bowl contention. This program needs another energy boost; we'll see if Calhoun can do it again.