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Air Force Falcons 2023 Preview

Another 10 win season?

Air Force prides itself on its ”next man up” mentality, and 2023 will be a nice test of just how much Coach Calhoun and his assistants have prepared the team for three expected and three other unexpected departures of high quality starters.

That’s not to say that the cupboard is bare, but the list of departures includes the third winningest QB in Falcon history, the third leading rusher in Falcon history, and one of only five offensive linemen to be named an All American in Falcon history. Add to that a season ending injury to one starting cornerback and a transfer out by the other starting cornerback, and a suspension of one of the best offensive linemen in the Mountain West; it’s obvious there are big shoes to fill.

The good news is that there are eight players with starting experience on offense and eight on defense. Four of those starters were named to the preseason All Mountain West first team, an unusually high number for the Falcons. Also, one of the most stable coaching staffs in college football is back virtually intact after three consecutive 10 win seasons in years with a full schedule. It is a staff that excels at developing unheralded recruits into big producers like Timothy Jackson, Brad Roberts, Nolan Laufenberg, Haaziq Daniels, Micah Davis, Vince Sanford, Isaac Cochran, Bo Richter, and Dane Kinnamon. They’ll likely add more names to that list this year.

So let’s get down to the details.


Reasons for optimism

The lowest rushing yard per game average for the Falcons in the Troy Calhoun era was 262 yards back in 2013. The offense will get its yards, the question is more about whether it will remain efficient at holding onto the ball and converting third and fourth down opportunities without Roberts and Daniels. That’s where the offensive line comes in. All American Cochran and 2nd team All Mountain West Everett Smalley have left to be replaced by Adam Karas and Ethan Jackman. Karas has been a starter and has a lot of playing time as a second tight end in jumbo packages. He has been named in many preseason all conference teams, and I placed him on my first team ballot. Jackman started the Bowl game last year in place of the injured Wesley Ndago, and performed well both in the power game and as a pulling blocker on outside runs. The Falcons were able to accumulate 276 yards on the ground and 40 minutes of time of possession against the Power 5 team. The rest of the line, Thor Paglialong, Kaleb Holcomb, and Wesley Ndago are multi year starters who have been named on multiple preseason all conference teams.

The running back group remains stacked with talent despite the departure of Roberts. John Lee Eldridge is the headliner at tailback, returning with his gaudy 7.7 yards per rush average. Calhoun envisions him this year having a larger role, even lining up at the fullback position on occasion.

Dane Kinnamon should be back at slot receiver after a leg injury kept him sidelined for most of last year. He appeared to be heading for a big season in 2022 after a 71 yard touchdown run and an 80 yard touchdown reception in the opening game before the injury. Promising newcomers Kade Frew, Cade Harris, and Kaden Cloud will have a chance to show off their talent.

The offense will have a good fallback for drives that stall out in kicker Matthew Dapore. He has a big leg, having made 3 field goals over 50 yards last year, and was perfect inside the 40 yard line. If the Falcons don’t force him into too many long attempts this year, he could be in the conversation for several postseason awards.

Reasons for concern

The complex rushing game that the Falcons employ requires high levels of execution, awareness, and precision. Experience is the best teacher of this, and the new quarterback will need to adapt quickly. Three years ago, Coach Calhoun eased Haaziq Daniels through the transition by calling less complex handoffs and keepers while avoiding the option, misdirects and reads. Fortunately, the first two games are against an FCS team and Sam Houston State, who is just making the transition to the FBS. Also, all three QBs listed on the depth chart are seniors and have been around the program for a long time.

The two primary competitors at quarterback are Jensen Jones and Ben Brittain. Each brings a different skill set to the game. Jones was a two way star in high school at quarterback and linebacker, and was named as a Small School All American at linebacker. He can provide some powerful running while Brittain has a good arm and good mobility. His first appearance last year as a passer resulted in an 80 yard touchdown. Neither has had enough snaps to tell how proficient they are at running the whole gamut of plays in the Falcon arsenal. Zac Larrier is listed on the depth chart as a possible starter, but he seems better suited as a player who can line up at any position and provide an explosive threat with exceptional speed.

Another concerning factor that should be discussed is the change in rules regarding cut blocks. The Falcons had a very successful season last year even with the cut blocks eliminated. However, I think most fans expected a little more with all the experienced talent on the roster. The offense struggled against four teams that are intense rivals that know how to defend the Falcon ground game - Army, Navy, Boise State, and Wyoming. Army and Navy, who basically run the same offense as Air Force (but not as well), struggled most of the year on offense. Navy fired long time coach Niumatalolo, and Army fired its offensive coordinator in the off season. Both have talked about throwing the ball more often. Even Coach Calhoun has talked about using the shotgun in certain situations this year. It’s something to keep an eye on as the season progresses. I don’t think Calhoun will do anything as drastic as Army and Navy, and I think that could give an edge to the Falcons in their battles this year while those teams adjust to the new schemes.


Reasons for optimism

For the last three years, the Falcons have had a top notch defense and this year should continue the recent trend. The anchor up the middle will be provided by three all conference contenders - Payton Zdroik, Alec Mock, and Trey Taylor. I’m excited to watch Zdroik this year to see just how high he can go. His last three games last year against Colorado State, San Diego State, and Baylor were dominant performances. Going up against blockers 40-50 pounds heavier, he tallied 10 tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 3 sacks, and a fumble recovery. He’s added 15 pounds in the off season, and should be even stronger this year as a junior. Mock is in his fourth year as a starter and is one of the hardest hitters on the team. Taylor is the quarterback of the defense, positions himself very well and plays all over the field.

Bo Richter will take over for Vince Sanford at Edge. I wouldn’t expect much, if any, falloff from the kind of numbers Sanford produced. PJ Ramsey will be at the other end of the line. Both he and Richter have added 10-15 pounds from their listed roster weight last year. Sophomore Jack Curtis has been impressive in practice and could see time as part of the rotation.

Camby Goff and Jayden Goodwin complete what is perhaps the best group of safeties in the conference.

Reasons for concern

During spring practice starting cornerback Eian Castonguay sustained a knee injury that will likely keep him sidelined the entire season. That disappointment was followed up by news that the other starting cornerback, Michael Mack was transferring to play at Wisconsin. Jamari Bellamy, Corey Collins, and Trey Williams will compete for their slots.

I had some mostly unfounded concern last year when Mack and Castonguay took over and hopefully that will be the case this year. If nothing else, the depth at the position has taken a hit.


Phil Steele rates the Falcons as having the 6th easiest schedule in FBS. As stated above, they start out with essentially back-to-back FCS games, allowing them to gel and fit the new pieces into the system. It’s highly likely they’ll start out with a 2-0 record.

The third week features the team that has been the toughest to beat over the last two seasons. Utah State comes into Falcon Stadium utilizing Blake Anderson’s spread offense. It’s an offense that the Falcons have not figured out, giving up 83 points in the two losses. The game is at home, but I consider it a toss-up.

Next up will be a road game at San Jose State. Chevan Cordeiro is a mobile quarterback with a lot of returning starters around him. Another toss-up.

San Diego State comes to Falcon Stadium in the fifth week. Last year, the Falcons completely bottled up Jalen Mayden and the Aztec rushing attack. The edge goes to the Falcons at home.

After a bye week, Wyoming comes to town armed with a very talented front seven. Two years ago at Falcon Stadium, the Falcons had to resort to the passing game in the second half to eke out the win. I’m not sure how good the passing game will be this year, so I’ll give the edge to the Cowboys.

Next up, Navy at Annapolis. I expect the defense to control this game as they have the last two years against the Midshipman for a Falcon win.

In week eight, the Falcons travel to Colorado State. Thanks to a very weak Ram offensive line last year, the defense was able to limit the Rams to 12 points for a 24-12 win. The Rams have a completely revamped O line and a lot of talent this year and will be a challenge for the Falcons. Unless the Ram new offensive line can significantly improve over last year, the Falcons have the edge.

Army comes to Empower Field in Denver for week 9. New offensive coordinator Drew Thatcher brings his successful scheme from Division II’s Nebraska-Kearny to Army, trying to revive the Black Knight’s offense. It might take a while to match the skill set required to run that scheme to the athletes available to Army. That will give an advantage to the Falcons.

Week 10 and 11 will see two teams attempting to turn their fortunes around, Hawaii and UNLV. Neither team appears to be ready to meet their goals, so the advantage goes to the Falcons in both cases.

The final game of the regular season will be against Boise State in Boise. As usual, Boise’s talent level is the best in the conference, and a Falcon loss is likely.

Overall, I would expect a 9-3 or an 8-4 record, with a leaning toward 9-3.