Blue Ribbon Preview: Air Force Falcons
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Troy Calhoun is a trend setter.
The Air Force head coach is the only man in the 100-plus years of service academy football to lead teams to at least eight wins and a bowl game in each of his first four seasons. Calhoun also is the first Air Force coach to win at least eight games in four consecutive seasons.
Calhoun is 21-11 in Mountain West Conference play, which is the most league wins in school history in a four-year span. He also guided the Falcons to their first Commander-In-Chief's Trophy since 2002, and a service academy-best 17th overall. Winning bowl games at service academies are nice, but the ultimate goal is the CIC Trophy.
The only thing Calhoun has not accomplished is to win a conference title. His first team at Air Force finished second, and last year's squad was third.
This year's team, at very least, will compete for the conference title along with preseason and nationally-ranked Boise State and TCU. Air Force returns a veteran group, and its two-deep is loaded with juniors and seniors. Holes need to be filled at fullback, in the secondary and on special teams, but this Air Force team is built to make a run at a league title.
But for Calhoun, a 1989 Air Force graduate, there's so much more to being at Air Force than winning football games.
"We have a lot of work to do before August 5 when we start fall camp," he said. "For us, that's a benchmark date, because at that point we know the players, and even the coaches, that have earned the opportunity to be a part of the 2011 Falcons.
"Between now and then there is a significant amount of our guys that have to complete their academic requirements in the classroom and also be involved in summer internships and other programs that will take many around the world. Then there is the running, lifting and skill development that has to take place. There's a lot of work to do."
Welcome to Air Force and service academy football.
Head Coach: Troy Calhoun (Air Force '89)
Record at school: 34-18 (4 years)
Career record: 34-18 (4 years)
• Clay Hendrix (Furman '86) Assoc. Head Coach/Off. Coordinator
• Matt Wallerstedt (Kansas State '88) Assoc. Head Coach/Def. Coordinator
• Matt Thiessen (Air Force '01) Assistant Head Coach/Receivers
• Charlton Warren (Air Force '99) Assistant Head Coach/Recruiting
• Blane Morgan (Air Force '99) Off. Coordinator/Quarterbacks
• Ron Burton (North Carolina '87) Defensive Line
• Des Kitchings (Furman '00) Running Backs
• Ben Miller (Air Force '00) Tight Ends/Special Teams
•John Rudzinski (Air Force '05) Defensive Assistant • Matt Welkert (Ohio '02) Outside Linebackers
• Brad White (Wake Forest '04) Inside Linebackers/Recruiting
The Falcons have two proven quarterbacks in seniors Tim Jefferson (6-0, 200) and Connor Dietz (6-0, 185). Jefferson is the starter, but Dietz has proven to be more than a capable replacement. They have a combined 34 starts the last three years.
Dietz is a better runner than Jefferson in Air Force's triple-option offense that incorporates some NFL-style zone running schemes.
Jefferson is the only quarterback in school history to lead the team to three straight bowl games, and his 21 wins as a starter is one shy of the school record. Jefferson was second on the team last season in rushing with 794 yards and scored a team-best 15 touchdowns. He completed 82-of-159 passes for 1,459 yards and 10 touchdowns, and his career pass efficiency rating is 142.11. True, Air Force doesn't throw the ball a lot, but it makes the most of its opportunities.
Still, co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Clay Hendrix says Jefferson has room to improve.
"We'd like to see him do a few more things in the throwing game because he's capable of doing it," Hendrix said. "We'd like to see him get that completion percentage up a little bit, and there are a lot of factors that go into that. We need to protect a little better and catch the ball better.
"The biggest thing he did last year was he stepped up much more as a leader. He doesn't say a lot, and that's something we talked to him about. I think he made some good strides there. "For a kid that's played as much as he has, you'd like to see him play his best his senior year. Sometimes you see kids not play as well as seniors, but I don't anticipate that from him."
Dietz played in five games last season and seven in 2009. He helped Air Force beat New Mexico after Jefferson left with an injury by running for 34 yards and a touchdown, and also completing 5-of-7 passes for 67 yards and a touchdown.
Dietz also is tough. He played most of a 2009 game at Utah with a broken hand. Who plays behind Jefferson and Dietz is the big question. Junior Tucker Tipton (5-10, 185) is the likely candidate.
Both spots are vital to Air Force's highly productive run game, which was second in the nation last season at 306.5 yards per game. The Falcons have finished in the top 10 nationally in rushing every year since 1987 and has led their conference since then every season but two. In those instances they were second.
Last season, senior Asher Clark (5-8, 185) became the 13th player in school history to run for 1,000 yards (1,031). Clark was a second-team All-Mountain West pick.
Hendrix said he's got "a real good situation" with Clark's backups: juniors Darius Jones (5-9, 160) and Cody Getz (5-7, 170). They combined for 205 yards and no touchdowns last season but played on special teams. Hendrix likes their ability and the fact they have experience. Sophomore Anthony LaCoste (5-10, 190) could also see playing time after getting one carry in one game last season.
Many contend the key to stopping Air Force's run game is to stop the fullback, and teams had trouble with the Falcons' two-headed monster last season, seniors Jared Tew and Nathan Walker, who combined for 1,069 yards and 10 touchdowns. Tew played in only eight games because of injury, and Walker filled in nicely.
Juniors Mike DeWitt (6-1, 215) and Wesley Cobb (5-9, 190) figure to be the two who will get most of the carries this season. DeWitt would have been the second fullback last season, but he injured a knee in August and missed most of the season. Cobb played in eight games and ran for 13 yards on five carries. Cobb was moved from tailback. Both have played at Air Force's Preparatory School, so they know the offense.
Calhoun says youngster Scott May also could be in the mix, but he wasn't listed on Air Force's post-spring roster.
"Each one had some moments [in the spring]," Calhoun said. "Each one needs to get it done academically in the classroom, which they can. They also need to find a way in terms of footwork, in terms of burst, in terms of acceleration and skills specifically to the fullback position.
Air Force totaled only 88 receptions as a team, and seven of the 10 players who caught passes are back.
The leader is receiver Jonathan Warzeka (5-9, 180) who made 18 catches for a team-high 406 yards and three touchdowns.
"He's a great kid and immediately upon meeting him I just knew this guy was going to be a terrific officer," Calhoun said. "A great character guy that always has a big grin on his face, and a guy that has a way at practice of doing something lively. He's a team guy first, all the way.
"He's a versatile kid that came here as a quarterback. We've used him as kickoff returner. He's caught some balls and been able to run it some. If he has a good season, we have a chance to be a pretty good team, too."
Hendrix thinks junior Drew Coleman (5-9, 170) is in the same mold as Warzeka but runs better. He caught only one pass last season.
The biggest of Air Force's receivers is senior Zack Kauth (6-4, 205). He led the team with four touchdown catches, was third in yards (274) and fourth in catches (16). Junior Mikel Hunter (5-9, 170) made the most of his five catches last season as he averaged 21.2 yards per catch. Junior Brandon Hirneise (6-1, 185) caught three passes in 2010.
The tight end is often split out as a receiver in Air Force's offense. Senior Joshua Freeman (6-3, 200) had the best per catch average last season at 30.5, though he caught just four passes. Senior Daniel Pickett (6-4, 230) will be his backup.
There was much consternation among Falcon followers leading into last season when all five starters on this unit had to be replaced. But many of the guys saw action in 2009, so it wasn't as big a deal for Calhoun and Hendrix.
Air Force returns three starters this season, and a fourth that played about as many snaps as the starter ahead of him.
Senior center Michael Hester (6-3, 250), senior guard A.J. Wallerstein (6-4, 280) and junior tackle Jason Kons (6-4, 255) were starters in 2010. But according to the post-spring depth chart, senior Jeffrey Benson (6-0, 255) is listed ahead of Hester.
Junior guard Jordan Eason (6-3, 255) alternated every third play with senior Jordan Schonsheck last season, so Eason has plenty of experience.
The one position that remains unsettled is right tackle. Senior Kevin Whitt (6-3, 255) had the edge coming out of spring. Junior Evan Kauffman (6-4, 255) was listed as the backup, and sophomore Andrew Kerber (6-3, 275) also could be in the mix.
Other backups who should compete for playing time include sophomore Michael Husar, Jr. (6-1, 270) and junior Nathan Badger (6-2, 250).
"I know since I've been here this is easily the most talented group we've had," said Hendrix, who enters his fifth season. "I think my biggest concern is getting our depth where we need it to be. I think when all is said and done we could have seven or eight guys that could be in the mix."
Air Force will switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3, but its base is a 3-4 and two of its three starting linemen return: senior nose guard Ryan Gardner (6-3, 260) and senior defensive end Zach Payne (6-3, 255). Associate head coach and defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt described these two as the "anchors."
Payne was second among defensive linemen on the team last season with 55 tackles and 6.5 for loss. Gardner added 29 stops. He missed two regular-season games with an injury but returned for Air Force's bowl game.
"We struggled without him, especially in the run game," Wallerstedt said. "He's steady and a real blue-collar guy. Payne plays with a little edge about him."
Wallerstedt said the battle at the other defensive end spot is between seniors Harry Kehs (6-4, 260) and Ben Kopacka (6-5, 255). Kehs played in 11 games in 2010 and Kopacka saw time in six. Both recorded two tackles.
There isn't a lot of proven depth anywhere on the line, especially behind Gardner inside. Senior Ross Fleming (6-3, 220) could play inside and outside. He had three tackles in seven games last season. Sophomore Dylan Turner (6-3, 245) played in four games as a true freshman. "We're not real big, but we're never really big along the line here," Wallerstedt said. "We've got some bodies, and we're going to have to be smart in keeping those guys fresh."
Three starters return and three others with game experience.
Senior Jordan Waiwaiole (6-3, 230) was an outside linebacker last season but moved inside because of injuries to other players. He thrived there with a team-best 96 tackles as a junior, along with 7.5 tackles for loss and two sacks. Look for him to stay inside as a senior as he joins senior Brady Amack (6-0, 225), who was third on the team with 82 tackles and 4.5 for loss.
Behind those two are junior Austin Niklas (6-2, 225), who made 41 tackles in 11 games in 2010, and perhaps senior Ken Lamendola (6-2, 235). In 2008, Lamendola recorded the sixth 100-tackle season in school history. But since then he's had knee and ankle injuries. If he can get back to his 2008 form, that would be a huge bonus.
Wallerstedt thinks this is the best group of inside linebackers he's had in his four years at Air Force.
"We kind of went as they went last year," he said. "When they were struggling the entire defense was struggling, especially against the run game. When they were on, we had some big games."
Senior Patrick Hennessey (6-2, 225) is back at one of the outside spots. He made 60 tackles last season, including 10 for loss, which tied for the team lead with departed senior Andre Morris. Junior Alex Means (6-5, 220) has a chance to be one of the best linebackers to play at Air Force in recent memory.
"If he taps his potential, he will be a scary player," Wallerstedt said. "He played as a freshman and has a lot of games under his belt."
Means will play the "bandit" position, which is a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker that can rush the passer or drop back in coverage.
Sophomore Jamil Cooks (6-4, 205), a local product from Colorado Springs, is another guy who has a lot of ability and potential. He played as a freshman and made 13 tackles, and he also came up with a big blocked punt in the win over Navy.
"He's more athletic than we've had here in the past at outside linebacker," Wallerstedt said. Juniors Jason Butler (6-0, 215) and Stephan Atrice (6-1, 195) also could compete for playing time. Atrice left Air Force after the 2008 season for a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Three starters return, but whoever the fourth starter is has big shoes to fill with the departure of senior cornerback Reggie Rembert, one of the most experienced and productive defensive back to ever play at Air Force.
Three players will compete for Rembert's spot in fall camp: seniors Josh Hall (6-0, 175) and P.J. Adeji-Paul (6-0, 185) and sophomore Chris Miller (5-8, 183). All three played last season. "They've shown glimpses here and there to be able to earn a starting role," Calhoun said. "I think all three of them also realize that there's a lot that has to develop between now and fall camp."
At the other corner, senior Anthony Wright, Jr. (5-10, 190) is among the conference and school leaders with 10 career interceptions. Last season he racked up 50 tackles, six pass break-ups and two interceptions.
The two returning safeties are senior Jon Davis 6-1, 198) and Anthony Wooding, Jr. (6-2, 177). Davis was second in tackles with 93, and tied Rembert with a team-best three interceptions. Wooding became a starter after junior Brian Lindsay (6-1, 210) broke his collarbone in early October. Wooding and Lindsay should have a good battle for the starting job in fall camp, but look for both to play and even be on the field at the same time in nickel situations.
Senior Kevin Jablonski (6-2, 190) is Davis' backup. When these backups aren't playing defense, look for them on special teams.
The Falcons are in good shape in terms of kickoff and punt returns.
Warzeka led the team a 28.7 average on kickoff returns, including one for 100 yards and a touchdown. Getz had 10 returns for an average of 17 yards.
Rembert was the top punt returner last season with nine. But Wright averaged 12.3 yards on six attempts. Cooks and Davis also could get some time there. Air Force had only 17 punt returns in 2010.
Senior kicker Erik Soderberg (6-1, 190) returns, but he made only 5-of-10 field-goal attempts and missed two extra points. He's in a battle for the starting job with junior Parker Herrington (6-1, 198).
Air Force does not have a punter on its roster that has attempted a kick in a Division I game. The leading candidate is sophomore David Baska (6-0, 175). Quarterback Tim Jefferson attempted 12 punts last season. And even though some were pooch kicks, he averaged 45.2 yards per kick, had a long of 71 and had eight downed inside the opponents' 20-yard line.
Air Force does not release names of new recruits until they arrive on campus in the summer. Incoming players don't sign National Letters of Intent. They sign a Certificate of Intent, which is a non-binding agreement that signifies an athlete's commitment to follow through with the appointment process.
With that said, Air Force has six players coming in who were high school quarterbacks. Not all of them will end up at that position, and Calhoun likes to sign quarterbacks for their leadership skills. He also likes to sign highly skilled offensive players and move some to defense. Jaleel Awini (6-2, 190) from Aurora, Colo., and Colton Huntsman (5-11, 175) from Cypress, Texas, could be the future for Air Force at quarterback, but not this year.
According to ESPN.com, the highest rated recruits for Air Force were offensive linemen Kyle Bockeloh (6-4, 265) from Texas, Ari Uzo-Okereke (6-5, 295) from California and Alex Martin (6-5, 251) from Washington.
Safety Tyrone Sauls (6-1, 220) out of El Cajon, Calif., turned down a scholarship offer from Oregon to sign with Air Force because he wanted to major in mechanical engineering. Sauls also had offers from Navy and Harvard, and was recruited by a handful of other Pac-12 schools.
"Coach Calhoun emphasized he has no problem starting a freshman, and coming in I'll have to compete for that position, but it will be there if I can get it," Sauls told the Colorado Springs Gazette.
BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS
The Falcons have enough talent and ability to compete for their first conference title since 1998, and barring any unforeseen injuries or adversity, Air Force's title hopes will come down to two games -- a Sept. 10 home game with TCU and a Oct. 22 road game at Boise State. The schedule is odd in that the Falcons don't leave home in September, play four of five October games on the road and end the season with four of five home games.
Keys will be Jefferson's improvement in the passing game. The defense also needs to create more turnovers. It's had a plus-50 turnover ratio since 2007, but it went from plus-22 in 2009 to just plus-5 in 2010. The kicking and punt games need to be shored up, especially if the Falcons find themselves in close games late.
But no matter the obstacles, Air Force under Calhoun always seems to find a way. In the six seasons before Calhoun's arrival, the Falcons were 12-24 in the second half of the season. Since then they are 18-8. When you think Air Force is down and out, it surprises you. There will be no surprise when the Falcons are near the top of the conference standings this season, nor if they find a way to win it.
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