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2021 Air Force Falcon Season Preview

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Let’s Go!

Offense

Reasons for optimism:

During the Troy Calhoun era at Air Force, the lowest number of rushing yards per game the Falcons have churned out is 263 yards per game in 2013, and that was a year during which the Falcons employed four different quarterbacks due to injuries. The triple option system is in place, the players are primed for good execution by consistency and repetition, and the coaches (most of whom have been around for a long time) know how to identify the players that will make the scheme work.

On the individual level, the Falcons return four key skill positions, namely QB Haaziq Daniels, FB Brad Roberts, WR Brandon Lewis, and TE Kyle Patterson.

Daniels started every game last year, and his command of the option grew with each game. In the first game against Navy, the Falcons didn’t even call a straight option play, but Daniels showed off his legs with 96 yards on 10 carries. In the second game against San Jose State, Daniels was shaky with his passing game, but had good performances against New Mexico and Utah State.

As for a benchmark on where Daniels is in his development, I’ll reprint my comparison between Daniels’ and Donald Hammond’s sophomore seasons:

Daniels

Rushing yards per carry - 5.4

Rushing TDs - 3

Passing completion pct - 55.6%

Passing TDs - 3

Interceptions - 3

Passing yards per attempt - 8.0

Passing rating - 130.1

Hammond

Rushing yards per carry - 4.5

Rushing TDs - 9

Passing completion pct - 52.8

Passing TDs - 5

Interceptions - 2

Passing yards per attempt - 8.7

Passing rating - 142.8

Brad Roberts broke onto the scene last year to finish the season second in the league in rushing yards per game, and second in yards per carry. Just as importantly, he never fumbled the ball and never got stopped behind the line of scrimmage. He is mostly being ignored in voter’s lists of All-Mountain West teams, probably because there is a lot of returning talent at running back in the Mountain West.

Lewis and Patterson were the Falcons two leading receivers, and Lewis showed good speed as the pitch option on the triple option, averaging 9 yards per carry. Patterson is a potential All-Mountain West tight end.

Cause for concern:

If you’ve read anything about the Falcons this summer, you probably know that they have to replace their entire offensive line. Constant churn of offensive linemen is not unusual at Air Force, but what is unusual is when the Falcons lose two linemen to the NFL. Replacing those two won’t be easy, and last year when Nolan Laufenberg (along with the starting center and starting right guard) was not in the lineup, the Falcons lost to San Jose State largely because they couldn’t convert a 1st and goal from the three yard line. I think we should expect a drop-off in efficiency, but the Falcons have excellent offensive line and strength conditioning coaches along with some big guys who’ve been in the program for a while. Keep in mind that George Silvanic, who is also now getting a chance at the NFL, played in only one game until his senior year. Sometimes it takes a few years to adapt to the Falcon system.

The other glaring change is the departure of Kade Remsberg from the tailback position. Brandon Lewis did a good job replacing Remsberg’s outside threat in the game he missed last year, but they’ll need someone to step up and carry a substantial portion of the load in the running game. The initial depth chart for the Falcons has Brad Roberts taking over the tailback position, which means the new starter will be at the fullback position.

Key stat:

The most reliable indicator of success for the triple option offense is third down conversion percentage. Keeping long drives alive keeps the defense off the field and demoralizes the opponent’s defense. The effectiveness of the new offensive line can be measured with this metric.

A secondary stat to watch is yards per catch in the pass game. The option works best when the defense occasionally gets burned by long pass plays.

The best two years out of the last five for the Falcons were 2019 and 2016, when the record was 11-2 and 10-3. Those were the two years that featured a greater than 50% third down conversion rate and a passing yards per catch greater than 20 yards.

Wildcard:

It seems as though the Falcons have a big contributor for the offense come out of nowhere every year. Last year it was Brad Roberts and Haaziq Daniels. The previous year it was Ben Waters. In 2018 it was Nolan Laufenberg and Parker Ferguson. I follow the program closely and I had heard nothing of the potential of these players to be such important elements of the team. My theory is that some players are particularly suited to the Academy and the football team’s style of play, and they are able to pick up the intricacies of the offense more thoroughly. Most likely someone else will emerge this year and become a major contributor to the Bolt Brotherhood.

Defense

Reasons for optimism:

By Academy standards, we almost never see this much experience and depth on a defense. The pandemic (and turnback option offered because of the pandemic) created an environment that resulted in many players getting an unexpected opportunity for substantial playing time. The Falcons led the country last year with 28 different players getting a first career start, the majority on the defensive side of the ball. Most defensive positions are two deep with players who have started a game.

In addition to the experience, the Falcons were pretty good last year, finishing third in the FBS with 15 points per game allowed and sixth in yards allowed with 303 yards per game. Three key losses from last year’s unit are George Silvanic, Grant Donaldson, and Elish Palm. In each case however, the Falcons return a proven playmaker who spent last year on a turnback - All-MW DE Jordan Jackson, LB Lakota Wills, and All-MW CB Tre Bugg.

Also returning from turnback are former starters DE Christopher Herrera, DB James Jones, and LB Demonte Meeks. These six returning turnbacks combined for 22 TFLs, 11.5 sacks, 3 INTs, 3 Forced Fumbles, and 2 Fumble Recoveries in 2019. Compare those numbers to last year’s TEAM totals of 16 TFLs, 7 Sacks, 5 INTs, 1 FFs, and 2 FRs (albeit in a shortened season), and we can reasonably expect a lot more disruption from this year’s defense.

Cause for concern:

Thanks to the additional year of eligibility granted to all players because of the pandemic, every other team in the Mountain West has over-the-top levels of returning production and experience in their offenses. Add to that the addition of talented transfer athletes and the competition will be at a higher level. The Falcons should not expect any cake walks.

Another question mark are with two players who I think can make a big contribution to an excellent year - Lakota Wills and James Jones. Wills has missed large parts of his playing seasons with injuries and Jones looked very promising prior to hurting his knee in 2017. It will be interesting to see if the off year will improve their durability through this season.

Key stat:

I alluded to the important factor to watch in the discussion of the turnbacks above. Pursuit of the quarterback is important in containing the passing attacks and running quarterbacks the Falcons will face this year. In last year’s two losses in conference, the Falcons were not able to tally a sack against Nick Starkel and Jack Sears. It was particularly distressing watching Sears get away from pass rushers time after time.

This year, the Falcons will have to face Hank Bachmeier (hopefully not Sears) and likely Offensive Player of the Year Carson Strong. Todd Centeio at Colorado State and Sean Chambers at Wyoming are elusive dual threat quarterbacks. In general, I’d say that running quarterbacks are more of a problem for the Falcons than good running backs are. Therefore, sacks, tackles for loss, and quarterback hurries will be the key stats to watch this season.

Wildcard:

The Falcon 2 deep depth chart was released at the Mountain West Media Days, and there were several surprises. Troy Calhoun usually leans toward the more experienced players for his depth chart. But this year depth chart features four sophomores, all as the #2 at the position. LB Johnathan Youngblood and FS Jayden Goodwin started games last year and did a good job; the other two we haven’t seen play yet, SS Trey Taylor and CB Eian Castonguary. There are several other sophomores on the roster who had significant playing time on the defense last year, namely Alec Mock, Nasir Rashid, Matt Malloy, Jayden Thiergood, Camby Goff, and Michael Mack.

That’s a long-winded lead in to saying the same thing I said in the wildcard section for the offense: somebody, or multiple somebodies, could emerge as a big contributor among those sophomores. Going back in Falcon history, some of their best players emerged as sophomores; Brad Roberts, Parker Ferguson, Nolan Laufenberg or going back further in history, Jacoby Owens, DJ Hammond, and Chad Hennings.

2021 Air Force Schedule

Sept 4 - Lafayette Leopards

Sept 11 - @ Navy Midshipmen

Sept 18 - Utah State Aggies

Sept 25 - Florida Atlantic Owls

Oct 2 - @ New Mexico Lobos

Oct 9 - Wyoming Cowboys

Oct 16 - @ Boise State Broncos

Oct 23 - San Diego State Aztecs

Nov 6 - Army Black Knights at Globe Life Field, Dallas

Nov 13 - @ Colorado State Rams

Nov 20 - @ Nevada Wolf Pack

Nov 26 - UNLV Rebels

Schedule analysis

It’s a tale of two half seasons. The front end of the schedule is loaded with lower tier teams and home games, and the back end contains upper tier teams and away games.

The season starts as usual against an FCS team that should be just a warmup. That’s followed by the big rivalry game against Navy in Annapolis. In a CIC game like this, predicting an easy win is not a smart thing to do, but Air Force is clearly the favorite. Navy still has to find a quarterback, their starting fullback recently got booted from the Academy, and a rebound from last year’s poor performance is far from certain.

Two home games follow against Utah State, who the Falcons have manhandled in recent years, and Conference USA’s Florida Atlantic. The homefield advantage should make the Falcons the favorite for both games.

Next it’s on the road to face Danny Gonzales’ still rebuilding Lobo team, after which the Falcons will have a pretty good chance of being 5-0. That would set up the match against the best opponent of the first half of the season, the Wyoming Cowboys.

Naturally, during the first five games of the season, a lot of questions about these two teams will be answered. For the Falcons, we will find out if this new offensive line can be efficient enough to keep long drives going, will Haaziq Daniels develop an accurate, dangerous deep passing game, and will the new running back arrangement approach the level of production we got used to with Kade Remsberg’s outside threat? For Wyoming, will Sean Chambers be able to stay healthy, and can he develop an accurate passing game?

For now, the edge would have to be with Wyoming, given how much experience and production they have returning, but having the game in Colorado Springs makes it a very close matchup, which could be determined by a few great plays or big mistakes.

After the Cowboys, there are three more tough matchups on the schedule, the first one being the Broncos at Boise. The only win the Falcons have at Boise required over 600 yards of offense to eke out a 37-30 win six years ago. The Falcons managed 484 yards last year, but this game is a likely loss.

The two games against San Diego State and Army will likely be tight defensive battles. The Aztecs have had the Falcon’s number the last few games, but that was under Rocky Long and the game is at Falcon Stadium. The Falcons and the Black Knights have been trading wins at home the last few years, but the game this year is at a neutral field in Dallas. Both games are tossups so maybe a split in these two games?

The Rams at home will give the Falcons a challenge, as they have obvious talent. I think the Falcons will win that game because for the last few years the Rams just haven’t demonstrated the discipline of harnessing the talent they have to keep the mistakes at a manageable level. Maybe Addazio can change that. I’ll believe it when I see it.

Nevada is way too talented to predict anything but a loss in Reno, and UNLV is way too early in their rebuilding effort to predict anything but a win.

Best case scenario

It’s too much to predict wins on the road over Boise and Nevada, but if a few players can break out this year, and the team maintains its focus and discipline, 10-2 is a possibility.

Worst case scenario

The margin of error in many of these games is small. If the offensive line isn’t up to Falcon standards of recent years, or the play calling and execution gets out of sync (as it did in the Army game last year), a 5-7 season is a small possibility.

Most likely scenario

Las Vegas odds makers have the over/under for wins for the Falcons at 6.5. Personally, I think the over is highly likely to pay off, and 8-4 is the most likely record.