I’ve struggled to start this review of the Falcon’s year due to the disappointment related to the final game against Army. The questionable play calling and untimely errors left a bad taste in my mouth that I’ve finally overcome and I think I can now give a fair assessment of the Falcon’s season. I’ll review each facet of the team and then take an early look at next year’s offensive lineup.
At the beginning of the year, I was pretty confident that the Falcon’s could produce the kind of offense we expect from the Falcons, with the question mark of finding a new quarterback that could handle the decision making involved in executing the triple option at a high level while providing an occasional threat with his arm.
By those standards, the Air Force offense had a reasonably successful season that provides a foundation to build on for next year. At the quarterback position, Troy Calhoun settled on Haaziq Daniels and stayed with him all year as the number 1 QB. Early in the season, the game plan was designed more around a standard run game utilizing zone runs, fullback dives and traps, and designed QB keepers than around the option running game, and Daniels was able to get familiar with being the main man. As the triple option began to be utilized more often, Daniels exhibited good decision making, accurate and timely pitches, and a nice ability to gain good yardage on keepers.
In the passing game, Daniels was very shaky early on and defenses were able to stack the box to stop the running attack. By the time of the New Mexico game, however, Daniels looked more comfortable and started unleashing some strong throws in tense situations. This continued into the Utah State game, but in the Army game, Daniels’ inexperience came back to bite him, and he tried to force three passes into tight coverage that resulted in interceptions. A lot of credit goes to a good Black Knight defensive secondary, but he will need to learn from that experience, and work on the decision making during spring and fall practice.
Anchored by an outstanding offensive line, the running game was tops in the nation and averaged 5.9 yards per carry. Just about every player who carried the ball was impressive, and the depth of the running back position enabled the team to not maintain production with the numerous injuries and Covid issues. The emergence of Brad Roberts and Brandon Lewis also provides a path for continued running back success in the future.
The only games with running issues were the San Jose State and Army games. At San Jose State, the three big offensive linemen in the middle were out due to Covid tracing as was Brad Roberts, and Kade Remsberg was injured early. The pivotal sequence in the game was a goal line stand by the Spartans after an 87 yard drive, where the Falcons got turned back three time from the one yard line. After that the game went downhill with the Falcons fumbling the ball away twice. The second fumble was by Timothy Jackson at the Falcon’s own 14 yard line, and the Spartans quickly turned it into 7 points. Notably, that was the last appearance by Jackson on the season.
In the Army game, the Falcons moved the ball pretty well on the ground when they had the ball. However, Army’s defense was twice able to stop the Falcon running game on third down from gaining a first down in Army territory. Instead of trusting in the O line and the running backs on getting a fourth down conversion, the coaching staff decided to kick a field goal on both occasions and twice the kicking game was not up to the occasion. To make matters worse, the Falcons twice had second and short yardage after nice first down gains, and twice tried passes down field that were intercepted. These decisions turned into a fabulous waste of a running game that WORKS.
With that out of my system, I’ll move on to the defense.
There’s no doubt about it, I was very concerned at the beginning of the year when word leaked out that a lot of returning defensive players were taking the option of skipping the semester and returning next year. Every key defensive player took the option - including All-Mountain West players Jordan Jackson, Demonte Meeks, and Milton Bugg III. It was bad enough that the Falcons had to start moving players from the offense over to the defense. George Silvanic moved from the offensive line to the defensive line, as did McKenly O’Neal. Johnathan Youngblood moved from fullback to linebacker. Multiple freshmen moved into the regular rotation for the first time in many years.
The result was unexpected. The Falcon allowed an average of only 15 points per game. If you take out the Boise State game, it was only 8.2 points per game. Granted, the defense was pretty awful against Boise, but in every other game it put the team in the position to win. The losses came because the offense gave up untimely turnovers and the special teams were uncharacteristically ineffective.
The secondary was the weakest part of the defense when they had to face a decent passer. Nick Starkel torched the secondary on deep passes and Jack Sears escaped the pressure from the front seven effectively enough to complete 17 of 20 passes with 3 touchdowns. They were effective however at enhancing the run defense by being effective tacklers. Cornerback Elisha Palm and Safety Corvan Taylor were the #1 and #3 tacklers on the team.
I already touched on this area above, but this squad was definitely not up to the standards of what we have grown to expect from the Falcons. The season started out positively as kicker Tevye Schuettpelz-Rohl hit four straight tough field goals against Navy. He then proceeded to miss his only field goal attempt against San Jose State, one of two field goals against Boise State, and two attempts against Army. In addition, the kicking team gave up the kick return touchdown to Avery Williams of Boise that deflated the Falcon’s chances for a comeback, although giving it up against an All-American can be somewhat forgiven.
The kick return game of the Falcons was again non-existent. Partly because of that, the Falcons had one of the worst starting field positions in college football. In one of his press conferences, Troy Calhoun touched on the subject, lamenting the fact he doesn’t have a dynamic return man like he did with Jonathan Warzeka or Ronald Cleveland. Perhaps some effort could be spent on finding or developing one.
Given the challenges this year brought, every team should be given a little slack for their performances on the field. The Falcons also created some of their own challenges, starting with the suspension from competition of their star quarterback. Then, thinking they could give some of their players the opportunity to not miss a year of participation, they offered their cadets the chance to take a turnback and come back next fall for another season. And finally, the errors in play calling and execution cost them the most important game of the season.
All-in-all though, I would still call it a fairly successful season, if for nothing else but the development of key contributors for next year. After last year’s spring practices, I gave a prediction of an 8-win season, with losses to Boise State, Wyoming, Purdue, and Army. Sure enough Boise and Army beat the Falcons, but San Jose State came up with a much better team than I expected and also beat the Falcons. Personally, I thought they could have won that game if they had all their offensive linemen, but all teams had mitigating factors this year.
Next Year’s Returning Offense
Several weeks ago in this article I presented a brief preview of key players who will, or might be, returning on the defensive side of the ball. Here is my summary of what the offense might look like next year:
Without a doubt, this unit will be the biggest question mark for 2021. Nolan Laufenberg and Parker Ferguson have declared for the NFL draft, so the pillars of the line will be gone. Every other lineman was also a senior last year, so unless some of them take a turnback in the spring, they will depart also. My sources have indicated that it’s a possibility that Adam Jewell will take a turnback and return. Also I have heard that George Silvanic, who moved from a likely offensive starter last year to the defensive line, might opt for one more season to fill the openings on the offensive line, although he would be a nice asset on the defensive line as well. Another turnback possibility is Britton Beasley, who saw time at center. McKenly O’Neal also moved from offensive line to defensive line and will be an option. Other underclassmen who saw playing time that are returning are Hawk Wimmer, Kris Campbell and Ryan Booth.
The Falcons should have a solid group of receivers next year. Brandon Lewis will return in the slot position, where he showed he can be a threat in the running game and the passing game. Kyle Patterson will be the tight end, with potential to be one of the best receiving threats at the position ever at the Academy. David Cormier will return from turnback to fill the wideout receiving position. I’ve been told from a long time follower of the Falcons that he has never seen a receiver that size with such talented hands.
Everyone returns who played at this position last year. Daniels will be the front runner, Warren Bryan showed poise when he played, and the Falcons are high on Ben Brittain. More possibilities are on the way.
With the departure of Kade Remsberg and Josh Stoner, most of the tailback experience will be gone. Brandon Lewis was an effective edge runner, but Troy Calhoun has been emphatic that he doesn’t see Lewis as a tailback. His usefulness is primarily as a receiving threat out of the backfield and as a changeup for the edge runs. Jordan Gidrey got some playing time as a freshman, but needs more experience.
The returners at fullback are solid. Brad Roberts breakout performance this year puts him firmly in charge. In fact, it appears that Timothy Jackson has left the team and will concentrate on his cadet responsibilities. Elija Robinson showed promise in limited opportunities as a freshman, averaging 6.7 yards per carry.
On a final note, I should mention that longtime running backs coach and special teams coordinator Ben Miller has decided to leave the Falcons to become tight ends coach at Illinois. Calhoun hired Miller in his first year as head coach at Air Force. Miller was named as this year’s Mountain West Connection running backs coach of the year.