The 2012 season starts out like many before it in Air Force's football history. On a yearly basis, the Falcon coaching staff has usually had one of the highest attrition rates in college football. In the past, Air Force has seemed to always find a way to plug the holes left by a graduating class. But, what is rare is that Air Force will be replacing a quarterback at the start of a season for the first time since 2008.
That year a freshman named Tim Jefferson Jr. stepped in fresh out of the Air Force Academy Prep School and cadet basic training and into the driver's seat of the Air Force option offense. After four seasons, Jefferson left as perhaps the greatest quarterback in Air Force history, if only second to one time Heisman Trophy finalist Dee Dowis.
But, the cupboard was not bare after Jefferson's graduation and entrance into the U.S. Air Force's pilot training program.
Senior Connor Dietz was granted a ninth semester on a "medical turnback" by the Academy brass this past spring, and subsequently a fifth year of eligibility by the NCAA. For the past four years Dietz has entered the season as a viable second string option behind Jefferson. In fact, in 2008, Dietz and Jefferson were in a battle for the starting job, both as freshmen.
But the difference that separated the two of them back in 2008 was Jefferson was a more accurate passer. Dietz, however, worked intently on his passing during spring camp in March, and all indications from the practices this month are that he has had a marked improvement.
An ability to move the ball through the air will be important this season. When Dietz stepped in for an injured Jefferson over the past couple of seasons, the Air Force offense had fallen into a one dimensional shell. Now this could be attributed to Dietz's abilities in commanding all of the aspects of an option offense or his lack of reps in weekly practices.
What was prevalent was opponents soon realized the Falcons' coaching staff seemed to only be comfortable with Dietz running the ball. For him to win the starting job back in the spring he had to show he could pass the ball with efficiently and needed to be spot on with his accuracy. The Falcons can not afford to be one dimensional.
Their Mountain West foes are becoming more and more familiar with the option. If Dietz can not show an improved ability throwing the football, there is depth and talent waiting to get a chance. Sophomore Kale Pearson, and Freshmen Dano Graves and Jaleel Awini are itching at the opportunity to show what they can do.
Elsewhere offensively, the Falcons will have to replace the near record output of former Air Force running back Asher Clark. Clark completed his fourth year of eligibility last fall second on the Air Force career rushing list, coming up just 18 yards short of Dowis' mark of 3,612 yards.
Clark was dismissed from the Academy less than two weeks prior to his anticipated graduation. While the way he ended his time at the Academy will stain his legacy, what he did on the field will not be forgotten. Clark carried the ball 628 times for 3,594 yards and 24 touchdowns while at Air Force.
But once again, there is talent that is ready to step in for a seamless transition. Senior Cody Getz has inserted himself into the starting backfield. Getz has 62 career carries for 286 yards and one touchdown. Now while that isn't much for a fourth year back, the coaching staff has liked what he has shown them during camp. Sharing carries with Getz at the running back spot will be fellow senior Wes Cobb.
The starter at fullback in 2011 is making the transition to the running back spot. Cobb will give the Falcons a big bruising type back to off set the smaller Getz's slippery quickness. Cobb will still see time at fullback along with fellow senior Mike DeWitt. Combined, Cobb and DeWitt accounted for 1,014 yards on 217 carries and 16 touchdowns from the fullback spot last year. Add in Sophomore Jon Lee who's Freshman campaign saw him get little action in 12 games, but still gained 122 yards on 11 carries and two touchdowns.
The most memorable of his carries was his first, early in the fourth quarter in a week 3 blowout of Tennessee State. Lee busted through a wide open hole in the middle of the line and blazed 49 yards into the end-zone untouched. Lee left Falcon Stadium abuzz with his talent.
With Getz and Lee's speed and Cobb and DeWitt's strength, Air Force will undoubtedly continue to lead the conference in rushing once again.
Defensively the turnover rate continues, so to speak. Gone are stand out defensive backs Anthony Wright Jr. and Jon Davis and linebackers Brady Amack and Jordan Waiwaiole. But once again replacement are right their waiting for their chance. Wright and Davis will be replaced in the defensive back field by Juniors Chris Miller and Stephon Batts. Both Miller and Batts have shown playmaking ability in both spring and fall camps and have won over their coaches.
Austin Niklas will replace Amack at one of the outside linebacker spots with Senior Alex Means returning on the other side. Waiwaiole's spot at inside linebacker will be filled by Senior Josh Kusan while incoming Freshman Connor Healy is looking to make an immediate impact in the middle and will see plenty of time coming off the bench.
But perhaps the biggest change on defense is in the coaching box at defensive coordinator. Matt Wallerstedt left to become the defensive coordinator on Kevin Sumlin's staff at Texas A&M. In steps former Air Force linebacker Charlton Warren who has promised the Falcons will get back to the attacking style they employed under Tim DeRuyter before his departure to Texas A&M in 2010.
For the two years since DeRuyter, the Falcons have played on their heels and let the opposition come to them. Comparing the '08-'09 seasons under DeRuyter to the '10-'11 seasons under Wallerstedt the Falcons went from averaging 19.0 points allowed per game to 24.8.
What is more telling is the disparity in turnovers since head coach Troy Calhoun has had to change defensive coordinators. in 2008, DeRuyter's second season as coordinator Air Force had a +13 in turnover margin. That increased to +22 in 2009. In Wallerstedt's first year the differential in turnovers dropped to +5 in 2010 and was 0 in 2011. From '08 to '09 the Falcons forced 64 turnovers. The past two years saw that number drop to 45. If Warren can instill a swarm to the football style in his players, the Falcon defense should be greatly improved this year.
What will be important is that Air Force maintains a high level of play throughout the season. Under Calhoun the Falcons have been able to get out to a good start going 14-6 in August/September through his first five seasons. That has virtually carbon copied into November/December at 15-7. It is October where the Falcons have struggled where they are a combined 12-11. October 2012 will be no different.
The month starts off with academy rival Navy coming into Falcon Stadium for an October 6th morning tilt on CBS. An evening road game to the high plains of Laramie awaits the following week. Next comes New Mexico in the only "soft spot" before a Friday night clash with conference newcomer Nevada on October 26th.
The Falcons should be pleased with a split of that four game stretch, but November does not promise anything this year. Air Force will be on the road three out of the four weeks and none of the games are gimmies.
Trips to West Point and then San Diego come before a renewal of an old WAC rivalry with Hawaii the Friday before Thanksgiving. The season concludes when the aforementioned DeRuyter hosts his alma mater in Fresno, CA. Boise State is no where to be found in 2012.
Overall, Air Force is right where they have always been going into a new season. They are looking for players to step into roles left empty by former players with quality talent. It is a next man up mentality. It has always been. Ironically, it is also a common theme seen throughout the history of the United States military.
But will it translate into a winning season for the Air Force Academy? Given their recent history and Troy Calhoun's success in finding the right players and getting the most out of them, the Falcons should be going bowling for a sixth straight year. If the new talent turns into bright stars and the Falcons catch a few breaks (i.e. No game vs. BSU), a run at the conference title wouldn't be out of the question.