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1. High expectations in Colorado Springs
It's right there in Air Force's game notes (example here -- PDF): Air Force is a hard job.
• Air Force student-athletes carry an average of 19 semester hours of academics each semester.
• Air Force doesn’t redshirt student-athletes. Cadets attend for a total of eight semesters, so student-athletes only have those eight semesters to complete their athletic eligibility.
• Air Force is a non-scholarship school. Student-athletes, like other cadets, must earn a nomination to attend the Academy. Air Force student-athletes do not sign a National Letter of Intent on signing days.
• Air Force student-athletes may leave the Academy without penalty during their freshman or sophomore years. Once their junior year begins, they are committed to the Air Force.
One more, from Air Force coach Troy Calhoun: "We're always going to be tiny. Guys aren't going to redshirt, they're going to go through basic training, which means being able to run 1.5 miles in 11 minutes at 7,000 feet."
I spoke with both Calhoun and former Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry this winter, and the theme from both was nearly the same: A) This is a hard job. B) They expect to win.
DeBerry is just about the nicest, most chipper person to whom you could ever speak. When he tells you that "the ultimate success of any program is how many kids you graduate," you are inclined to believe him. But the distaste in his voice is evident when he speaks about last season's 6-7 finish. It was the first losing season in Colorado Springs since DeBerry's final campaign in 2006, and while it continued a six-year streak of bowl attendance, Air Force's step backwards was clear. And it wasn't what either DeBerry or Calhoun had in mind.
That said, the 2012 season was also pretty predictable: Teams tend to regress when they lose virtually all of their starters. In 2012, the Falcons had to replace their starting quarterback, their leading rusher, their four leading receivers, four of their six most experienced offensive linemen, three of their top four defensive linemen, four of their fop five linebackers, and all four starting defensive backs. That's ridiculous.
"Any experience you have, that means guys who make fewer mistakes, assignment-wise," says Calhoun. "You play more aggressively when you have more experience."
While the offense remained pretty aggressive (and inconsistent), especially in its vertical passing, the Air Force pass defense was the most passive in the country. Inexperience hindered the offense a bit and devastated the defense. And now Air Force must battle a decent amount of turnover yet again.
2. Three years in a row
The 2012 dropoff was predictable. But if you're in the mood to worry about Air Force's long-term prospects, you could feel free to point out that 2012 was the third straight season that saw Air Force regress overall. In 2009, Calhoun's third year in charge, the Falcons were legitimately strong, ranking 26th in the F/+ rankings and fielding a fierce, creative 3-4 defense that ranked 12th in Def. F/+. But coordinator Tim DeRuyter left for Texas A&M in 2010 (he is now the head coach of Air Force's Mountain West rival, Fresno State), and the defense has since sunk from 12th to 47th to 82nd to 99th. And while the offense's 2012 slump could be written off to inexperience, the defensive issues were part of an ongoing trend. A new defensive coordinator, Charlton Warren, couldn't immediately stem that tide last fall.
Graduation once again hits the offense pretty hard, but the defense returns a decent amount of experience, especially in the secondary. Will that help at least a little bit?
2012 Schedule & Results
|Record: 6-7 | Adj. Record: 5-8 | Final F/+ Rk: 101|
|Date||Opponent||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L|
|1-Sep||Idaho State||49-21||W||32.9 - 58.1||L|
|8-Sep||at Michigan||25-31||L||27.5 - 37.2||L|
|22-Sep||at UNLV||35-38||L||30.3 - 40.0||L|
|29-Sep||Colorado State||42-21||W||39.4 - 34.0||W|
|6-Oct||Navy||21-28||L||32.5 - 31.0||W|
|13-Oct||at Wyoming||28-27||W||27.1 - 32.6||L|
|20-Oct||New Mexico||28-23||W||29.2 - 31.9||L|
|26-Oct||Nevada||48-31||W||40.9 - 23.6||W|
|3-Nov||at Army||21-41||L||18.0 - 27.6||L|
|10-Nov||at San Diego State||9-28||L||20.8 - 19.3||W|
|16-Nov||Hawaii||21-7||W||29.7 - 13.7||W|
|24-Nov||at Fresno State||15-48||L||22.9 - 40.2||L|
|29-Dec||vs. Rice||14-33||L||11.8 - 36.7||L|
|Points Per Game||27.4||74||29.0||71|
|Adj. Points Per Game||27.9||67||32.8||101|
3. Bad sandwich
Despite all of the turnover, Air Force put a decent product on the field for most of the middle of the season. The problem was that the Falcons weren't very good at the beginning or end, even including a near-upset of Michigan.
Adj. Points per Game (first 3 games, last 2 games): Opponents 42.4, Air Force 25.1 (minus-17.3)
Adj. Points per game (middle 8 games): Air Force 29.7, Opponents 26.7 (plus-3.0)
After a 1-2 start, Air Force won four of five games; the Falcons' 17-point win over Nevada was particularly impressive. But they began to fade a bit afterward. The win over Hawaii clinched bowl eligibility despite three early one-possession losses, but Air Force was pretty much out of gas at that point. The season ended with blowout losses to both Fresno State (justifiable -- FSU was damn good) and Rice (less so).
|Q1 Rk||77||1st Down Rk||85|
|Q2 Rk||73||2nd Down Rk||78|
|Q3 Rk||66||3rd Down Rk||97|
4. The impact of experience
Despite the loss of nearly every starter from the 2011 offense, Air Force managed to improve its per-game rushing totals from 314.8 per game in 2011 (second in the country) to 316.2 (second again). That's simply what Air Force is going to do; the last time the Falcons didn't rank in the nation's Top 10 in rushing yards per game was 1986. But the Falcons were quite a bit less efficient, less consistent, on the ground. Their Rushing Success Rate+ ranking fell from 30th to 61st, and that made a significant difference.
DeBerry: "We always had to keep the opponent's offense off the field to be successful. If you can work on some five- and seven-minute drives, the opponent might start pressing a bit." Time of possession can also keep Air Force's undermanned defense fresher, but that wasn't the case in 2012.
Air Force runs a pretty tactically interesting attack; Calhoun spent four seasons as an offensive assistant in the pros before returning to Air Force, where he was a quarterback for DeBerry in the late-1980s; his years with the Denver Broncos immersed him in a zone running game that he took back to Colorado Springs. This isn't a stereotypical Flexbone attack by any means, but it still makes its bones on efficiency and maintenance of possession, and there needs to be more of both in 2013.
Note: players in bold below are 2013 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Kale Pearson||5'9, 175||Jr.||NR||12||29||128||41.4%||0||4||2||6.5%||3.8|
|Ben Okun||6'1, 190||Fr.||** (5.4)|
|Jon Lee||RB||5'10, 190||Jr.||*** (5.6)||88||545||6.2||5.3||4||+6.3|
|Ty MacArthur||WR||5'9, 175||Sr.||NR||57||467||8.2||5.7||2||+14.1|
|Broam Hart||RB||6'0, 210||Jr.||** (5.1)||29||100||3.4||1.4||1||-4.2|
|Dakota Diessner||RB||5'10, 180||Fr.||** (5.2)|
|Bryan Driskell||RB||5'9, 175||Fr.||** (5.4)|
|Ty MacArthur||WR||5'9, 175||Sr.||NR||32||24||411||75.0%||12.8||23.7%||68.8%||12.5||82.8|
|Marcus Hendricks||TE||6'6, 235||Jr.||** (5.3)||14||7||117||50.0%||8.4||10.4%||57.1%||8.3||23.6|
|Jon Lee||RB||5'10, 190||Jr.||*** (5.6)||6||4||45||66.7%||7.5||4.4%||66.7%||6.8||9.1|
|Colton Huntsman||WR||5'10, 175||Jr.||** (5.4)||5||4||28||80.0%||5.6||3.7%||80.0%||4.2||5.6|
|Christian Gann||WR||6'4, 205||Jr.||** (5.3)||3||2||25||66.7%||8.3||2.2%||100.0%||5.0||5.0|
|Pete Cender||TE||6'5, 220||Fr.||*** (5.6)|
|Trent Gow||TE||6'3, 235||Fr.||*** (5.5)|
5. Going long
"We love throwing the ball down the field," Calhoun says. It seems counter-intuitive at first, considering Air Force is running the ball even 80 percent of the time on passing downs, but when Air Force does pass, it's going for the throat. And despite general inefficiency, the Falcons did see some solid success with the long ball in 2012. The top three receivers all averaged at least 12.4 yards per target and 17.1 yards per catch with a 58 percent catch rate. Schedule adjustments tamp these numbers down a bit (Air Force didn't exactly face many good pass defenses), but the Falcons' aggressive passing bailed them out of a few jams at times.
Will Air Force be able to lean on the long ball again in 2013? Ty MacArthur and his 17 yards per catch return, but the two major home run hitters, Drew Coleman and Dontae Strickland, are gone. Assuming they are admitted this summer (there's a reason why Air Force doesn't announce its signing class until June), the offense could welcome a couple of interesting, three-star tight ends to the mix, but the speed out wide is a mystery. Plus, quarterback Connor Dietz is gone, and there was an extensive dropoff between Dietz and backup Kale Pearson last year. The run game could be nice, with three-star junior Jon Lee ready to take his star turn atop the depth chart, but improvement in run efficiency might only be enough to offset regression in pass explosiveness.
|Jordan Eason||C||25 career starts; 2012 2nd All-MWC|
|Jason Kons||LT||36 career starts|
|Alex Huskisson||RT||14 career starts|
|Drew Kerber||LG||6'3, 255||Sr.||NR||13 career starts|
|David Lore||RG||6'1, 235||Sr.||** (5.4)||6 career starts|
|Austin Hayes||C||6'2, 245||Sr.||** (5.3)||6 career starts|
|Jerry Henry||RT||6'6, 255||Sr.||NR||3 career starts|
|Michael Husar, Jr.||C||6'0, 250||Sr.||NR||1 career start|
|David Jones||C||6'0, 230||Jr.||NR|
|Moshood Adeniji||RG||6'2, 250||Sr.||** (5.4)|
|Colin Marquez||OL||6'5, 250||Fr.||NR|
|Mike Sutton||OL||6'3, 300||Fr.||** (5.4)|
6. Hilariously small
Calhoun understands the hand you're dealt at Air Force. "Anybody's preference would be to overwhelm somebody with sheer mass and speed, but we have to find different ways. You have to be resourceful. You have to realize there's still a way to run the ball even if you don't weigh as much as somebody else."
And to say the least, Air Force doesn't weigh as much as anybody else. The Falcons' starting linemen this year weigh as much as SEC linebackers; the five returnees with starting experience average just 6'2, 248. The backup center weighs 230 pounds. But despite a lack of size and experience, the line produced in 2012. The Falcons' zone blocking scheme did its job, eliminating negative plays, opening up holes on standard downs, and producing in short-yardage situations. Despite the loss of three starters, including center Jordan Eason, there appears to be enough talent and experience to replicate that success in 2013. The top of the depth chart is once again laden with seniors.
|Q1 Rk||112||1st Down Rk||102|
|Q2 Rk||97||2nd Down Rk||106|
|Q3 Rk||122||3rd Down Rk||113|
Air Force held up reasonably well against the run and could expect to do so again in 2013. Two strong ends (Alex Hansen and Joseph Champaign) will complement what will admittedly be a green tackle up front, and Air Force should be able to replicate its middle-of-the-pack rushing rankings.
But ... wow, was Air Force's pass defense bad last year. And it might not improve this fall. The Falcons blitzed pretty well on passing downs, but it just didn't matter. With a passive, ineffective secondary, they had the third-worst pass defense in the country and ranked dead last in Passing Success Rate. Experience could help the secondary, but that might just offset the fact that Air Force's linebacking corps, a relative strength last year, have been drained of all of its experience.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Alex Hansen||DE||6'2, 240||So.||NR||14||30.5||4.0%||9||4||0||1||0||0|
|Joseph Champaign||DE||6'1, 240||Jr.||*** (5.5)||9||16.0||2.1%||3.5||2.5||0||0||0||0|
|Nick Fitzgerald||DE||6'4, 265||Jr.||NR||13||16.0||2.1%||4||1||0||1||1||1|
|Riley Cannon||DE||6'4, 245||Jr.||NR||12||8.0||1.0%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Jared Jones||OLB||6'2, 220||Jr.||NR||12||31.0||4.1%||3||1||0||1||0||0|
|Joey Nichol||OLB||6'1, 220||Jr.||** (5.4)||7||10.0||1.3%||2||0||0||0||0||1|
|Steven Sumpter||ILB||6'2, 220||Jr.||*** (5.5)||11||5.0||0.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Spencer Proctor||ILB||6'2, 207||Jr.||NR||12||3.0||0.4%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Miles Fisher||LB||6'0, 195||Jr.||** (5.4)||13||1.0||0.1%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Kyle Williams||LB||6'0, 220||Fr.||** (5.4)|
|Patrick Healy||LB||6'1, 222||Fr.||** (5.4)|
8. A couple of stars up front
When you are a 240-pound defensive end in a 3-4 alignment (which usually requires bigger ends to occupy blockers and free up linebackers), you probably better be making some plays to account for the fact that you are likely getting pushed around a bit. Both Alex Hansen and last year's backup, Joseph Champaign, did that; 12.5 of their 46.5 tackles were behind the line of scrimmage. Throw in junior end Nick Fitzgerald (who, at 265 pounds, could very well end up at tackle this year) and his four TFLs in 16 tackles, and you've got a nice activity level up front. At linebacker, Jared Jones and Joey Nichol showed similar potential. The loss of star outside linebacker Alex Means, a playmaker both against the run and pass, could hurt; but there is upside to be found here.
Still, the issue here is obvious. The playmaking potential at DE and OLB may be pretty high, there is almost no experience whatsoever up the middle. Both of last year's tackles, along with both starting inside linebackers, are gone, and there are no obvious replacements.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Christian Spears||FS||5'9, 185||Jr.||NR||13||69.5||9.1%||2.5||0||1||2||2||0|
|Steffon Batts||CB||6'0, 180||Jr.||NR||13||64.5||8.5%||0||0||2||5||1||1|
|Chris Miller||CB||5'8, 185||Sr.||NR||13||47.5||6.2%||0||0||0||6||0||1|
|Dexter Walker||CB||6'0, 190||So.||** (5.4)||13||9.0||1.2%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Gavin McHenry||CB||5'11, 160||So.||NR||11||9.0||1.2%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Anthony LaCoste||DB||5'10, 195||Sr.||** (5.1)||9||8.0||1.0%||0||0||1||0||0||0|
|Connor Healy||DB||6'0, 215||So.||** (5.4)||7||6.5||0.9%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
|Jamal Byrd||FS||5'11, 185||Jr.||NR||10||5.5||0.7%||0||0||0||0||0||0|
9. Help wanted in the back
As we end up saying a lot, experience isn't always a good thing. It's only good if it's experienced talent. Free safety Christian Spears showed decent potential as a sophomore last year, but perhaps because of inexperience, Air Force was incredibly passive, willing to allow a completion at any time just to keep the play in front of defenders. The Falcons defensed just 41 passes in 2012, No. 109 in the country, and let's just say that the fact that Steffon Batts made 64.5 tackles last year probably wasn't a good thing. Large tackle numbers from corners could suggest solid run support; but it could also suggest that the corner's man caught a lot of passes.
Still, of last year's top nine tacklers in the secondary, three were freshmen and three were sophomores. That Air Force ranked last in Passing Success Rate+ last year is obviously alarming, but the secondary was so young that one has to think that a little bit of experience will help.
|David Baska||6'0, 182||Sr.||40||39.2||1||16||11||67.5%|
|Briceton Cannada||5'9, 170||Sr.||59||59.8||25||42.4%|
|Zac Hoffman||6'1, 200||Sr.||4||50.0||0||0.0%|
|Anthony Lacoste||KR||5'10, 195||Sr.||20||27.1||0|
|Jon Lee||KR||5'10, 190||Jr.||8||20.8||0|
|Ty MacArthur||PR||5'9, 175||Sr.||10||7.6||0|
|Special Teams F/+||114|
|Field Goal Pct||123|
|Kick Returns Avg||39|
|Punt Returns Avg||76|
2013 Schedule & Projection Factors
|13-Sep||at Boise State||12|
|10-Oct||San Diego State||53|
|8-Nov||at New Mexico||122|
|30-Nov||at Colorado State||117|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||58|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||98|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||-13 / -3.1|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||9 (4, 5)|
10. As many as 10 games are winnable
Again, Air Force doesn't redshirt its players, so its depth chart is always going to be stocked with upperclassmen. Consequently, this is a team that will almost always lose quite a few starters from year to year. Since Calhoun took over in 2007, for instance, Air Force has never returned more than six starters on offense and has only once returned more than six on defense.
Still, last year's turnover (total returning starters: 6) and this year's (9) is pretty stark. It is difficult to figure out if there is a reason for this further reliance on seniors (have the last few signing classes been pretty poor?) or if it is just randomness at work, but it is going to be difficult for Air Force to bounce back toward 2009 levels if it is starting over each year. Experience is just too valuable, especially to teams that aren't in line for four- and five-star recruits.
That said, the bowl streak should still continue on for a seventh straight year. Air Force plays seven teams projected 95th or worse this season and plays only three that are projected in the Top 50. The Falcons should be able to grind out six wins even if the quality doesn't improve much. If you're going to stagnate in a difficult job, there are worse fates than doing so while still going to the postseason every year.