The Air Force Falcons (9-4) might be flying under the radar this year in football. While most of the attention in MWC football has focused on the coming debut of Boise State and more recently on the departures of BYU, Utah, and TCU, the fly boys have quietly continued to strengthen their program. Many thought that the Falcons were supposed to break out last year and failed to do so. But the Mountain West football legions may be in for an awakening in the power structure this year.
A little history might put the Falcon's rising trajectory in perspective. When Air Force left the Western Atheletic Conference in 1998 to form what is now the Mountain West Conference, the Falcons left as the WAC Champions with a 12-1 record. That was also the last conference championship they won. From 1999 thru 2006, the most conference wins they were able to achieve in a season was five in 2000. The MWC years were a sad legacy for Head Coach Fisher DeBerry (169-109-1), who retired in 2006.
By then the academy was ready for a coach who would turn the proud program around. They found one with Troy Calhoun, a former Falcon quarterback (1985-1988) who was then the Offensive Coordinator for the Houston Texans. He had also been an assistant coach for the Denver Broncos. Calhoun was hired in December 2006 and took over the ailing program. The following year his team surged to a 9-4 record and Calhoun was named the Mountain West Coach of the Year (2007). Since his hire, the head coach has amassed a record of 34-18-0 and taken the Falcons to four consecutive post-season bowl games with a win last year over Georgia Tech in the Independence Bowl. Under Calhoun's tenure, AF went 9-4 in 2007, 8-5 in 2008, 8-5 in 2009, and 9-4 in 2010. I won't bother you to mention that the Falcons also won the Commander-In-Chief'sTrophy last year.
So how will the team sustain their winning momentum and march toward a MWC championship this year?
For one thing both BYU and Utah are not in the picture, and TCU will be struggling with a depleted corps of starters. The Falcons (who were rated as high as #23 in the Coaches, AP and Harris polls last year) can still field a team that can use their signature triple option to get past both San Diego State and Boise State.
Sure Air Force lost a whopping 26 seniors off their football squadron. But behind Coach Calhoun stands a squadron of veterans and other cadets ready to step up. The leader of the offense is dual-threat quarterback senior Tim Jefferson. Jefferson passed for 1,459 yards with 82 completions on 159 attempts. He also carried the ball on 154 tries, accounting for 794 yards. Besides Jefferson's abiltiy to run, only senior running back Asher Clark had more yards with 1,081 yards on 182 carries. Wide receiver Jonathan Warzeka #15 accounted for 312 yards on the ground while still leading the team in pass receptions (18 for 406 yards). Senior WR Zach Kauth did not get a lot of playing time last season due to injury, but if he is healthy look for him to make a big difference on the passing offense this year.
QB Jefferson is expected have senior Connor Dietz as his backup. But in the small chance Jefferson won't get the crown, that rotation could be reversed once training is over. When Jefferson was knocked out the New Mexico game last November in the first quarter, it was Dietz who stepped in for the Falcon win. For a team that relies heavily on the running game, everyone is watching the full back position. Last year they hung tough, being able to gain the hard yards up the middle. But the graduating class took both Jared Tew and Nathan Walker, leaving a huge hole to be filled in the backfield.
Replacing all those offensive seniors has not been easy for the Falcons. With the physical restrictions that the military academy puts on its cadets, the Air Force football team has had to rely more on skill than on size or brawn. So credit the Air Force coaches for recruiting a great class of freshmen. They had commitments from 43 new players and 7 of those are rated three stars by Rivals. Offensive tackles Kyle Bockeloh, 6'4" 265 lbs and Ari Uzo-Okereke, 6'5" 295 lbs, along with wide receiver Courtney Whitehead, 6'2" 194 lbs, are just three who could make a difference on the offense this year as true freshmen.
The AF coaches know that defensively, the Falcons gave up a lot of ground last year. It doesn't help that they lost seven players off the front line, and that the team will need others to step up and help DE Zach Payne and inside LB Jordan Waiwaiole to bust up plays. And maybe that's why their recruiting was not just concentrated on offensive players, but have also filled their hangar with a number of top ranked defensive backs and ends. Freshmen DB's Trent Dennington, 6'0' 195 lbs, Trevor Caswell, 6'1" 200 lbs and DE's Troy Timmerman, 6'4" 245 lbs and Tanner Rice 6'2" 240 lbs could all see playing time this fall. DB Aaryn Bouzos, 5'9" 180 lbs is another new recruit who could make a difference at safety.
But there are lot of unanswered questions remaining for the Air Force defense to answer. If the Falcons hope to stop or contain a San Diego State or Boise State offense, they need to be able to threaten with a pass rush. And the cornerback postion vacated by Reggie Rembert needs a playmaker as well. That position is begging for Sr. Josh Hall or So. Chris Miller to step in. And they need to get it done before the season in well underway.
Luckily, the Falcons open play with their first three games at home. First up is South Dakota on September 3rd. But hard on their heels will be TCU on the 10th. And TCU's graduating QB Andy Dalton has been replaced by projected starter Casey Pachall, a sophomore who was heavily recruited by Michigan, Florida and Notre Dame.
If Air Force is ready by then, it could be the beginning a breakout season.