In the past, the Air Force Falcons have always had to reload on both sides of the ball, typically because seniors have been their best players and the most experienced year in and year out. The Falcons return 10 players listed as starters on the pre-season depth chart who had significant playing time a year ago. Yet another unusual occurrence in Air Force history.
Times have changed under Troy Calhoun.
Calhoun has stated from day one when he took over in January of 2007 that his most athletic players he wanted on the defensive side of the ball. This coming from a former NFL offensive coordinator with the Houston Texans came a shock to Air Force fans. But looking back on the first four years under Calhoun, the man clearly knows what he is doing. Last season the Falcons finished 10th in pass efficiency defense and 5th in passing yards per game. With stats like that the defensive secondary is the first place to look to see if they can repeat those rankings this season.
The Falcons are returning starters Anthony Wright, Jr. at corner and Jon Davis at safety. And even though they lost all conference corner Reggie Rembert (now a graduate assistant on the coaching staff) to graduation, the well didn't dry up. Returning as injury fill ins from last season are corners P.J. Adeji-Paul and Josh Hall, and safety Anthony Wooding, Jr. Five guys who had significant playing time a year ago and saw the ball throw their way more often due to the presence of Rembert. Wright had an off year by his own self proclaimed standards in '10, and by looking at what he put up in his sophomore year in '09, who could blame him. Wright lead the Mountain West in '09 with seven interceptions, tied for fourth in the conference with 11 passes defended, and scored three touchdowns. With the depth and experience returning the Falcons expect to repeat what they did to opposing pass attacks again in '11.
Brian Lindsay also returns to the defensive secondary at safety after an injury plagued sophomore season that showed bright signs early on. Lindsay wasn't so much a threat to passing attacks as he was a run stuffer when opponents tried to pop their tailbacks outside of the tackle box. He made excellent reads and reacted to limit the running game. When Lindsay went down with a broken collarbone against Colorado State his presence was immediately missed. In a heartbreaking Week 7 loss at San Diego State, the Falcons saw Aztec Freshman Ronnie Hillman pile up 191 yards rushing and score two touchdowns. The misery continued as TCU and Utah combined to rush for 556 yards in Weeks 8 and 9 to complete a three game losing streak that knocked Air Force out of the title race. Lindsay looks and plays more like a linebacker and would have been considered a "Falcon Back" under former coach Fisher DeBerry's 3-3-5 defense of years past. Lindsay missed the last six games of '10 but was able to return the field and help the Falcons stop Georgia Tech in the Independence Bowl win.
The front seven like the DBs returns depth and experience. Of the 14 plays on the two deep, 12 are returning with significant playing time. Leading the group is senior linebacker Jordan Waiwaiole who led Air Force with 96 tackles last season. Returning starters include Zack Payne at defensive end and Ryan Gardner at the nose on the line, and Patrick Hennessey and Brady Amack joining Waiwaiole in the middle of the defense at linebacker. Alex Means, who will start at the other linebacker spot, returns after making 2 starts in place of Hennessey last year.
The key to the Falcons success will be stopping the run and the pressure will be on the front seven to get results and get the defense off of the field. Air Force allowed an average of 195 yards rushing last season. Now with a defense that has been proficient against the pass, seeing them give up yards on the ground doesn't come as a surprise. But it wasn't Andy Dalton that beat Air Force last year, it was the 377 yards allowed on the ground that gave the Falcons no shot to win. Undoubtedly the Week 2 game against TCU will be the test again this year. Dalton is gone and Horned Frogs head coach Gary Patterson will remember their success last year.
The Falcons will have to make an early statement against TCU by stopping the run in order to show that the mean business this season in the Mountain West. Size will always go against Air Force, but the Falcons just might have enough experience, talent, intelligence, and athleticism this year on defense to break through the ceiling this year.