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Grading the Falcons

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How did each position unit perform this year?

With the 2021 college football season drawing to a close, fans everywhere will be engaging in the yearly process of taking stock of where their favored team stands, how they performed, and what level of success they might expect next year. For the Falcons, I’ll start by looking at each position unit and estimate their level of performance by assigning a grade to each and stating my reasons for that grade. The standard for my grading will be based on an average Mountain West team. This season, it’s generally agreed that the Mountain West is the best of the G5 conferences.

Let’s start with the defense.

Defensive Line

The main contributors on the defensive line were Jordan Jackson, Chris Herrera, Kalawaia Pescaia, Elijah Brockman, and Jayden Thiergood. Kenny Ngaima and Ethan Jackman had smaller roles. In total, they contributed 13.5 sacks, 25.5 TFLs, and 109 tackles. The Falcon’s overall sack total of 35 placed then in the #6 spot for sack rate.

As the first line of defense against the run, the defensive line was a main contributor to a defense that allowed only 95.6 yards rushing per game, which was #6 in the country, even though the Falcons faced the #2, #11, #25, and #52 rushing attacks in the country.

Jordan Jackson was the star of the line, drawing double teams on many pass plays and allowing other rushers easier access to the backfield. He also showed his versatility when he took over at nose guard for the last two games and came up with 3.5 sacks, and finished with 7 sacks.

Chris Herrera emerged as the secondary threat on the line with a total of 7.5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks, and 8 QB hurries.

Overall Grade: A-

Linebackers

At the beginning of the year, I thought this might be the strongest, deepest unit on the team and they did not disappoint. In fact, the unit turned out to be much deeper than I thought. The Falcons were mixing and matching throughout the season trying to match abilities with the opponent’s capabilities and especially because of injuries. Vince Sanford was the only linebacker to play every game. Lakota Wills was injured in the first game and was lost for the season. Nine different linebackers produced tackles for a loss.

Just about everyone is aware of what a great breakout season Vince Sanford had, except perhaps the voters for the official All Mountain West first team. He led all MW linebackers in sacks and TFLs. Nobody saw this coming, except perhaps his coaches and teammates.

The list of other linebackers that produced big plays is long. Alec Mock produced the big hit on Hank Bachmeir on fourth and goal to kill Boise State’s hopes. Bo Richter picked off a Carson Strong pass, killing a Nevada drive. Camby Goff knocked down a Strong pass in the end zone on the final play in overtime to seal the Falcon win. TD Blackmon and Demonte Meeks had 20 tackles between them to hold Navy to 3 points in a CIC matchup.

One factor that needs to be pointed out when evaluating effectiveness of the Falcon linebackers and defensive line is the tackle statistics. The Falcon tackle leaders were Vince Sanford and Tre Bugg with 56 tackles. Compare that to the leading tackler in the MW, SJSU’s Kyle Harmon with 134. A cursory evaluation would lead to the conclusion that Air Force didn’t defend the run or pursue the quarterback very well. Consider, however, that the Falcons controlled the ball for 36 minutes per game, and that opponents did not run often against the Falcons and at least 40 percent of passes don’t result in a tackle. If you watched any Air Force games this year, you would likely come away thinking they were solid tacklers. Total tackles is not a good measure to evaluate effectiveness for Air Force.

Overall Grade: A-

Defensive Backs

Although the Falcons ended up number 20 in passing yards allowed, the defensive backfield did suffer through some lapses in performance at times. The biggest lapse was against Utah State, and it ended up costing the team the division championship. Logan Bonner and Andrew Peasley combined for 448 yards and five touchdown including five passes of more than 35 yards. Army defeated the Falcons by completing 8 of 13 passes for 214 yards including plays of 79, 48, and 39 yards. Carson Strong threw for 351 yards and 4 TDs. Also, the Falcons only managed 8 interceptions on the year, which placed them tenth in the conference.

The pass defense was notably better once Trey Taylor recovered from an illness and while Michael Mack was starting at cornerback, and by Air Force standards was solid.

Overall Grade: C-

Special Teams

Following a trend that began last year, field goal kicking was again an issue. Freshman kicker Matthew Dapore missed his first college field goal attempt against Navy in the second game. After making his lone field goal attempt against Utah State, the Falcons switched to freshman Anthony Rodriguez, and he promptly missed one of two field goal attempts against Florida Atlantic. He then missed one of two attempts against New Mexico. After another missed field goal against Boise State, Dapore took over the kicking duties for the remainder of the season. He missed a field goal against Colorado State, but was accurate on his other kicks, including a key 49 yard attempt against Nevada. Fortunately for the Falcons, none of the misses resulted in a loss.

In all other aspects of special teams, the Falcons were effective, except that they continued the practice of not returning kicks. Punters Carson Bay and Charles Bein shared duty and averaged a pedestrian 40 yards per kick, but were very good at minimizing return opportunities and pinning the opponent inside the 20. Coverage was good with no long returns that hurt the team, and a couple of forced fumbles.

All-in-all though, the Falcons did not come close to the standards of most Mountain West teams. With kickers like Matt Arraiza, Ryan Stonehouse, Jonah Dalmas, and Brandon Talton in the conference, the Falcons were at a disadvantage.

Overall Grade: D+

Running Backs

This was quite possibly the fastest, deepest group of running backs in the history of Falcon football. Brad Roberts headlined the group with his uncanny ability to find the weakest point of attack, squeeze his way through small gaps, and bounce off tacklers like a pinball. DeAndre Hughes, Micah Davis, and Brandon Lewis excelled on the edges with elite high end speed as exhibited in these clips:

As an added bonus, all the backs displayed excellent blocking ability on the edge, which allowed the primary edge runners of Davis, Lewis, Hughes, Dane Kinamon, and John Lee Eldridge to average 7.5 yards per carry.

Backup fullbacks Emmanuel Michel and Omar Fattah provided good relief to Roberts and ran for 641 yards between them and averaged 5.4 yards per carry. All total the fullbacks made over half the rushes and produced 1920 yards.

The running back group also did this while maintaining good ball protection. 612 carries by the backs resulted in only 5 fumbles attributed to them, and one of them involved a botched handoff from Haaziq Daniels to Brad Roberts.

Overall Grade: A

Quarterbacks

Of course we’re mainly talking about Haaziq Daniels in this section, but I wanted to mention Warren Bryan first. He is a senior and will not be returning next year and he has only had three opportunities to run the offense for any significant time. Each time he was very good at executing the offense without error. He started the Boise State game last year, and guided the team to 484 yards of total offense without a turnover. The game was lost on defense and special teams. Earlier this year, he came in for Daniels in the San Diego State game down 20-0 and guided the team to two touchdowns, falling just short of a comeback. And of course against UNLV in the last game this year, he led a 511 yard effort for the blowout win. He may not have had the athleticism of Daniels, but he did inspire confidence.

Daniels displayed a lot of talent this year, but also displayed some hesitancy and mental errors. As a runner, he was second on the team in yards with 705 and averaged 5.0 yards per carry. He displayed a great deal of speed on his 94 yard touchdown run against Florida Atlantic. However, he was also charged with 8 fumbles and was involved in 3 other fumbles on snaps, handoffs, or pitches. In general he made good decisions on option plays, timing many pitches perfectly.

As a passer, he had very nice games against Utah State, Wyoming, and Army, but in general left something to be desired with his accuracy, hitting only 45% of his passes. When he was able to complete a pass, the average yardage was about 22 yards, meaning he did have ability to hit long passes.

When determining a grade in this category, I have to throw out what the rest of the conference thinks of as a good quarterback. What matters most is his decision making in and execution of the running game. Minimizing turnovers and controlling the ball are very important as well.

Overall Grade: C+

Receivers/Tight Ends

I’ll put these categories together because they have the same mission, block first, catch the ball second.

At tight end, Kyle Patterson was supposed to be the star, but when he was lost for the season in the third game, the position became an extension of the offensive line. Caden Blum, Dalton King and even DT Adam Karas played at the position and produced only one reception. Patterson before the injury appeared to be a main target for the passing game, but was somewhat inconsistent in coming down with the ball when targeted.

Micah Davis looked like a solid receiver making one spectacular catch, but then dropping a long pass that appeared to be a sure touchdown. He was then lost for the year after the Aztec game.

David Cormier was somewhat disappointing after all the hype in the preseason, dropping a couple passes, but looked strong in the Army game.

Dane Kinamon was not targeted much, but caught everything thrown his way. The undisputed star of the receiving corps was Brandon Lewis, who caught 16 passes averaging almost 28 yards per reception.

This is another category that can’t be evaluated as the rest of the conference might evaluate it.

Overall Grade: B-

Offensive Line

As a Falcon fan, this is the most satisfying unit. No unit is more important than this one. As I noted in my unit preview, the system that has been in place for years almost assures that this group will do a good job. However, there were questions about meeting the standards set in recent years by members of the DIESELS. This group had never played together in an actual game. It turned out that the churn of players was even more than usual, with many sophomores getting significant playing time and injuries causing many different combinations of players.

The consistent member of the unit was RG Hawk Wimmer, who played every game, and won a well-deserved first team All Mountain West award. When the Falcons needed a few yards for a TD or a first down, the play was normally directed to the right side of the line, and the Falcons led the nation in 4th down conversions with 31.

It seemed to me this was also a very mobile line, utilizing a lot of plays with pulling guards and tackles. Plays like this became a staple late in the season:

A minor point of criticism is that the line was not great at quarterback protection in the passing game, as they ended up 101st in the country in sack rate, but the sample size was pretty small. Also, it seemed the holes in the line might have been a little smaller than last year, as Brad Robert’s yards per carry fell from 7.2 to 4.6. Interestingly, the benefit of this was an increase in time of possession from 32:30 per game to 36:41, and an increase in rushing first downs per game from 16.3 to 17.8. The Falcons were forced into fourth down conversion at almost twice the rate as last year, but converted them at a better rate than last year. Maybe it was a good thing.

Overall Grade: A

Coaches

The two coaches that deserve the most praise are OL coach Steed Lobotzke and RB coach Tim Horton, as show by the ratings of their units above. Lobotzke now has a three year streak of producing first team All Mountain West offensive linemen, and the depth of talent was high enough to maintain a high level of performance regardless of any injuries.

In Horton’s first year as Falcon RB coach since his return, he coached DeAndre Hughes, Micah Davis, and Dane Kinamon from virtually no experience to major contributors in the run game. Several Falcon runners utililized this little move below in key situations, that I don’t remember seeing last year:

The entire staff deserves credit for developing and instilling the “next man up” attitude that allowed the team to shrug off injuries and continue playing at a high level.

I think most fans can find issues with play calling and personnel choice at times, and I am no exception, but that’s part of the guessing game for the coaches.

With nine wins in the book, and three losses by one score, the coaches had the team in position to meet all their goals, but fell short in two major goals: winning the CIC trophy and winning the MW championship.

Overall Grade: B+

Let me know what you think of my ratings in the comments below or on Twitter @FalconNittany.