Falcons' conditioning key to resurgence

From an outsider's view, the strategy seems counterintuitive.

Telling a military man to improve his conditioning is like telling a sumo wrestler to beef up or a Hollywood starlet to slim down. The motivation is already there.

And it wasn't like first-year Air Force coach Troy Calhoun didn't have evidence of his team's physical fitness. In the middle of winter, just weeks after Calhoun was hired, players assembled for the academy's aerobic fitness test, a mile and a half run that every cadet must complete.

Offensive players went first. Defensive players followed. Everybody finished within 11 minutes 45 seconds, even the linemen.

"That's about a 7:45, 7:50 mile," Calhoun said. "I realized, 'Whoa, we could have a squad that could be pretty special conditioning-wise.'"

Such a display would satisfy most coaches. With Calhoun, it was just the opposite.

He told the team that offseason workouts would be amplified. A football-specific strength coach (Matt McGettigan) would be hired, a novelty at Air Force. Players would lift weights before practice and go through conditioning drills at the start of each workout, a departure from the previous season.

Calhoun's rationale? Rather than take hustle and fitness for granted, he would capitalize on them.

"When you start talking about attitude and energy and teamwork and toughness, you have to be superb," said Calhoun, who replaced longtime coach Fisher DeBerry in December. "Here at the academy, you have to completely max out those intangibles."

Air Force has succeeded so far, opening the season 5-2. The Falcons' 4-1 record in Mountain West games marks the team's best start since joining the league, and their five overall wins are the most since 2004. Another victory and Air Force will be eligible to reach its first bowl game since 2002.

The stats mirror how Air Force won in the past. The Falcons rank fifth nationally in rushing offense (260.4 yards per game), producing five different leading rushers in the first seven games. The defense yields yards but not points, and the team ranks 21st in average turnover margin (plus-0.86).

New schemes on both sides of the ball are also helping, but Air Force's about-face goes beyond playbooks and numbers. It can be traced back to the upgrade in conditioning.

After listening to Calhoun outline the obstacles facing the Falcons, it's easy to see why.

"We're short."

Thirty players are listed at less than 6-foot, including quarterback Shaun Carney (5-10) and leading rusher Chad Hall (5-8).

"We don't weigh a lot."

Only six players are listed at more than 280 pounds, with tackle Bryce Waller and nose guard Ryan Gonzales the only 300-pounders.

"We aren't a group that has a whole lot of quickness or swift movement about us."

That's a roundabout way of saying they're slow.

Calhoun continued to list the program's drawbacks.

No early enrollees. Players who usually graduate in less than four years. Admission requirements that require a 3.5 grade-point average with a 25 ACT score or a 1,200 SAT score.

"If you look at us on paper," senior linebacker John Rabold said, "other teams should probably come out here and kill us."

They don't because Air Force has combated its shortcomings by accentuating the core values that Calhoun knows all too well. DeBerry was the face of Air Force football for 23 seasons, but Calhoun is the first Falcons coach who graduated from the academy.

He played quarterback for DeBerry in the late 1980s.

"What are the strengths that you do have?" Calhoun said. "You're going to have young people with tremendous fortitude, guts and courage and unselfishness, a lot of grit about them, being fit, not being somebody that bruises really easily.

"You rarely come across guys that get hangnails or have diaper rash."

Players still needed some time to meet Calhoun's demands for conditioning.

They lift weights for 30-45 minutes before practices Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and then work on flexibility and developing core strength Thursday. A few sideline-to-sideline gassers kick off each practice before the Falcons turn their attention to football.

"It was hard at first," senior guard Caleb Morris said. "We used to work out only one time a week last year, and we kind of joked around sometimes."

The joking has stopped. The winning has started.

Air Force has outscored opponents 101-68 in the second half and overtime. The Falcons rallied from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit against preseason conference favorite TCU and eventually won in overtime. They needed 17 second-half points to outlast Utah 20-12 on the road.

"In the second half, it doesn't seem like we have too many people out there sucking much wind," Rabold said. "We're able to keep driving and play like we are in the first quarter."

The improved conditioning also has helped Air Force adapt to more aggressive schemes.

Calhoun runs a no-huddle offense that differs from the tried-and-true triple option, but still generates the same top-of-the-line rushing results.

Five players gain more than 39 rushing yards a game, with Hall, Jim Ollis, Kip McCarthy and Chad Smith gaining more than 5 yards a carry. As promised, there has been more passing, but the run remains king. Air Force had 69 rushing attempts and only five passes in a 45-21 thrashing of Colorado State last week.

"They're doing a great job rushing the football," said Wyoming coach Joe Glenn, whose team visits Air Force on Saturday. "Troy was lying about that 22-passes-a-game deal."

Morris admits he came to Air Force to play for DeBerry and block in the triple option, but he and his fellow linemen have quickly embraced the new system.

"Last year, you knew what we were going to run," Morris said. "In the triple option, you had to get the fullback, the quarterback and the tailback. But now, it's like the fullback's going one way, the tailback's going the totally opposite way, the quarterback's maybe booting out for an option or a pass.

"The defensive linemen don't really know what's going on. They're kind of sitting back a foot or two. We can just fire off and they never know what hit them."

By the time defenders get their bearings, Hall is usually long gone.

The team's leading rusher last season, Hall moved from running back to wide receiver in spring ball but has thrived in Calhoun's offense. He's one of only two players nationally (East Carolina's Chris Johnson is the other) to lead his team in both rushing (583 yards) and receiving (337). Hall also tops the team's receptions list (30) and shares the lead in rushing attempts (77) with Carney.

Hall's on-field magic is secondary to what he does behind the scenes, particularly on the Keiser squat machine, which measures and develops explosiveness.

"He knocks it off the chart," Brown said of Hall, who rushed for a school-record 256 yards against Colorado State. "He's like a human dynamo. I've never seen it before in my life. He can break people's ankles."

Air Force's defense is also delivering its share of punishment.

Rabold ties for 14th nationally in tackles for loss (1.5 per game), picking up four sacks to lead a unit that ranked 115th in TFLs and 90th in sacks last season. The Falcons have allowed more than 400 yards in three games, but they consistently limit damage, leading the Mountain West in red-zone defense (57.1 percent).

TCU had nine drives end in Air Force territory without points.

"When we get down to that goal line, we buckle down a lot harder," Rabold said. "We're really making big plays on defense. We've been lacking that the last couple of years."

Despite their proximity to bowl eligibility, the Falcons aren't focusing on the postseason, trying to avoid what Brown calls "a sloppy mentality" that hamstrung the team late last season. Air Force dropped six of its final seven games in 2006, including the last four.

The Falcons hope that this season, they're conditioned to finish.

"I thought we would have a more physical football team as the season progressed," Calhoun said. "The desire and the determination of your players, the kind of character you have, those need to be your competitive advantages.

"As we continue to play into October and November, we'll find out if that's the case."

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Daily Herald.