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Air Force coach Troy Calhoun has his priorities in order.
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Troy Calhoun is turning around Air Force with defense.
He lost his top six rushers, including Chad Hall, the academy's all-time all-purpose yards leader, and four-year starting quarterback Shaun Carney. Also gone are his top two receivers and three starting offensive linemen. His only starting skill-position player back in the mix on offense is tight end Travis Dekker.
So what area does Calhoun, the former Air Force quarterback and longtime offensive coordinator, list at the top of his spring agenda?
"The defense," he said. "That's where it's always going to start."
Allow him to explain.
"On defense, when you're disciplined, when you're aggressive, it has a huge impact on the morale of your football team," he said. "I played quarterback, but defense has got to be the initiator in everything you do."
For that reason, Calhoun will focus on revamping a unit that led the Mountain West in red zone efficiency (70.8 percent) but lost six starters, including linebackers Drew Fowler, John Rabold and Aaron Shanor. The career offensive coach will lean heavily on his defensive experience, which consists of a single season (2003) tutoring the Denver Broncos linebackers.
"That was probably the most beneficial year I've ever been a part of in football," Calhoun said.
Last year was undoubtedly Calhoun's most satisfying.
Air Force went 9-4 and made its first postseason appearance since 2002. Hall broke records, and the defense allowed just 13.2 points a game at home -- where Air Force went undefeated for the first time in nine years.
But the defense dipped a bit toward the end of the season, and Calhoun plans to install more 4-3 packages this spring after going with the 3-4 exclusively in 2007. Three starting linemen return, including end Ryan Kemp (four sacks).
"There were too many times where we felt like we had to immediately go to five-man pressures in order to generate some heat," Calhoun said. "We've got to have ways where we're only rushing four and still able to get to the quarterback."
Identifying the Falcons' next quarterback will be another chief concern for Calhoun. Shea Smith, who backed up Carney last season, will compete with Eric Herbort and others.
Calhoun wants to be close to settling on a starter by the end of spring ball, but replenishing the overall rushing production will take time.
"It's a little bit of TBD it'll be determined down the road," he said. "It's not like we didn't know that when we came here that there wasn't going to be rebuilding involved. That's why we're going to start with the defense. For the long-term health of your program, it's got to be done on the defensive side of the ball."
Adam Rittenberg covers college football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Versatility or clarity? Skip Holtz might have to make a decision soon. Last season, East Carolina got by with two quarterbacks (Pat Pinkney and Rob Kass), but it also ranked next to last in Conference USA in total offense (385.5 yards per game). Holtz understands quarterback mathematics -- 2=0 and 1>2 -- and admits it'd be easier if a clear-cut starter emerged in spring practice. But he also doesn't want to limit his options under center. "It's possible for one guy to stand up and claim it," Holtz said, "but Rob Kass is going to have to do some better things in his decisions and running the ball, and Patrick's going to have to do some better things in throwing the ball. If I had Tim Tebow, I'd have one quarterback. I'm not sold that my whole goal for spring is to find one. If we go into next season and we utilize the two-quarterback system again, that won't bother me."
SMU fans must be thinking, What's next? The long-suffering Mustangs finally land their savior coach in June Jones, and then starting quarterback Justin Willis gets suspended for violating team policy. Both Willis and safety Bryce Hudman will not participate in spring ball. Willis' absence makes things tricky for Jones, who must implement his dynamic offense without a proven trigger man. Willis set a school record with 3,643 yards of total offense last season and threw 414 of the 432 passes SMU attempted. Sophomore Zach Rhodes will get an extended look after backing up Willis last season, and Logan Turner also is in the mix.
Several key position races are under way, including a quarterback competition at Akron, which opened practice Tuesday. With Carlton Jackson transferring, Chris Jacquemain is the front-runner, but he must hold off Matt Rodgers.
Nevada's impending quarterback duel will heat up this summer as Nick Graziano returns to full strength, but the spring gives Colin Kaepernick the chance to re-establish himself as the starter. After Graziano suffered a foot injury midseason, Kaepernick took over and won WAC Freshman of the Year honors, passing for 2,038 yards with 19 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
Air Force, Houston, Louisiana-Monroe and North Texas are among the teams looking for starting running backs.
TCU coach Gary Patterson postponed the start of spring practice from March 1 to March 18, giving a group of injured players more time to recover. Among those who will benefit from the later start date are running back Aaron Brown (ankle) and linebacker Daryl Washington (shoulder). "We have a lot of kids recovering from surgery," Patterson said. The Horned Frogs' spring game was moved from April 5 to April 12.Louisiana-Monroe also pushed back spring practice, but for a different reason -- not enough coaches. Warhawks coach Charlie Weatherbie has had to replace six assistants during the offseason, most recently co-offensive coordinator Nate Kaczor and defensive backs coach Lytrel Pollard. ULM begins practice March 14 and plays its spring game April 19.