Blue Ribbon Preview Air Force Academy

COACH AND PROGRAM

For the first time in 24 years, the Air Force Academy football program is undergoing a significant makeover, and new head coach Troy Calhoun is the man responsible for the renovations.Calhoun, who was hired on Dec. 15, 2006 to succeed his former coach and an Air Force legend — the retired Fisher DeBerry — faces a daunting task. The Falcons return just 10 starters off a 4-8 team that limped down the stretch, losing its final four games.

But Calhoun may be the right man for the job. He understands the challenges of life at Air Force. He’s a 1989 graduate and former quarterback and has a resume that is as diverse as it is impressive. Calhoun spent the previous four years in the NFL, three with the Denver Broncos and last season as the offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans.

“[In the NFL] you are in an incredible laboratory to learn a lot of football,” Calhoun said. “It’s an incredible education from a football standpoint. The key thing you learn is to identify what your guys can do — athletically and skill wise — and making sure that’s where you focus. There are a lot of fancy things you can do on a chalkboard, and yet the key is, ultimately, making sure your guys have something they can execute in a very aggressive way.”

Air Force executed the option attack with aggression the last quarter of a century. It’s what the current players on the rosters were recruited to do and what they’ve practiced. Calhoun will look to add more variety to the Falcons’ game plan — they ran the ball nearly 82 percent of the time last season — but he isn’t going to scrap the option.

“I still think the backbone of what we do has to involve some option,” Calhoun said. “I think wholesale change would be a mistake and would limit our opportunities for success, and yet we want to have a little more balance in our offense.”

More balance likely means throwing the ball upwards of 20 to 25 times per game, unheard of numbers in Colorado Springs but modest nearly everywhere else. The Falcons were next to last in the nation in passing offense, averaging just 101 yards per game, so there is much work to be done.

Calhoun also expects to implement more one- and two-back sets, unfamiliar concepts to a program accustomed to a three-man backfield and just one wide receiver.

Defensively, the Falcons plan to operate out of a 3-4, rotating a host of defensive linemen and hoping playmakers emerge elsewhere.

The first spring of the Calhoun era was unsatisfying, as numerous players missed time with injury, a setback for a coach inheriting a team in need of a lot of work.

“We know we have to make major strides to get where we want to be as a football program,” Calhoun said. “This is a place where there is a tremendous amount of spirit and will. Our strengths have to be desire, unselfishness and durability. We are a group if hangnails and chapped lips keep us out for three or four weeks, it’s going to be a tough go.”

Life at Air Force, at least in comparison to what other football players go through, is a tough go. It takes a different kind of kid — athletically and academically — to thrive at the Academy, and Calhoun hopes the fact that seven of his 11 assistants are alums will be of assistance on the practice field and the recruiting trail.

In addition to taking over a program coming off three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since 1981, Calhoun is succeeding an icon in DeBerry. Despite the struggles of the last few years, DeBerry’s legacy was long ago secured. Before his arrival, the Falcons enjoyed sporadic success — even earning trips to the Cotton (1958) and Sugar (1970) bowls — but sustained prosperity was elusive.

In DeBerry’s 23 seasons, Air Force went to 12 bowls (it had been to a total of five before his arrival), had 17 winning seasons and went 35-11 against Army and Navy, making the Commander-in-Chief trophy a virtual fixture in Colorado Springs.

“He is a guy that has been such an important backbone of the whole fiber of the Academy for a quarter of a century,” Calhoun said of DeBerry. “He’s left an incredible influence that will be part of the academy for a long time to come. He’s a super football coach and a class human being.”

DeBerry has settled into retirement and it will be Calhoun’s job to return the program to its previous heights, a task that will likely take time.

QUARTERBACKS

On a team with few returning starters and far more questions than answers, Calhoun can be comforted with return of senior quarterback Shaun Carney (5-10, 190). Entering his fourth year as a starter, Carney will probably be the key to any success the Falcons enjoy.

Inside the Mountain West

Carney is second in career touchdowns (30) and third in career passing yards (3,900). Barring injury he will take over the top spot in both categories — he needs just four touchdown passes and less than 900 yards passing — and he needs only 76 yards rushing to become the eighth player in Air Force history to rush for at least 2,000 yards.By any statistical measure, Carney is one of Air Force’s most prolific quarterbacks ever. Despite having 83 more career rushes (517) than he does passing attempts (436), Carney could benefit from Calhoun’s increased emphasis on the pass. He is a career 61.8 percent passer and has a nearly 2-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio (30-16). Carney threw for a career-low 1,192 yards last season but had 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions.

“I think he’s fairly accurate on the move,” Calhoun said. “I think he’s decent on some of the short stuff. On intermediate throws, he does show adequate arm strength. He doesn’t have a cannon — he isn’t a guy you aren’t going to confuse with [Peyton] Manning — but he can be a solid player for us in the fall.”

Senior Jim Ollis (5-11, 190) and junior Shea Smith (5-10, 190) will back Carney up, but neither has thrown a collegiate pass. An injury to Carney would be fatal to any hopes of a quick turnaround for Air Force.

RUNNING BACKS

The good news is Air Force returns its top three rushers, including Carney, who was second. The bad new is Calhoun wasn’t feeling comfortable with his stable of backs coming out of the spring.A large part of his unease was based on the fact senior Chad Hall (5-8, 180), who gained a team-leading 618 yards and averaged 5.1 yards per carry in 2006, sat out with a torn meniscus.

“I have to go with what I can see,” Calhoun said of Hall’s status as the team’s primary back. “I have to see it on the practice field before I can say that guy is a definite.”

Calhoun’s concerns notwithstanding, Hall is expected to be 100 percent by the start of practice. Despite his lack of size, he has shown the ability to carry a heavy load, cracking the 20-carry mark on three different occasions. Hall earned second-team All-MWC honors and had two 100-yard games in 2006. He was the first Air Force halfback since 1989 to earn all-conference honors. Expect Hall to be used as a receiver out of the backfield more as well.

With Hall sidelined, Ollis, a quarterback his first three years, got work in the backfield during the spring and impressed. Ollis, who rushed for 104 yards on 21 carries as a backup quarterback last season, will see action as a running back.

Junior Daylan Phillips (5-11, 200) and senior Kip McCarthy (5-10, 190) will compete for carries as well. McCarthy played sparingly in 2006, rushing 16 times for 84 yards. Phillips has yet to register a collegiate carry.

Senior Ryan Williams (5-9, 215), who was also dinged up during the spring, will be the starting fullback. Williams rushed for 442 last season and enjoyed his best game at Tennessee, rushing for a career high 98 yards and two touchdowns. Senior Scott Peeples (5-10, 220) will be the backup at fullback.

No one stood out in the spring and the group needs to get tougher, according to Calhoun, but Hall’s presence should give Air Force a respectable ground attack.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

As Air Force looks to expand its passing attack, this is one area that will need an upgrade. The top six receivers on the spring depth chart combined to catch 29 passes last season.On the bright side, junior Mark Root (6-2, 195), who caught 16 passes for 314 yards, should provide Carney with a reliable target. Root doesn’t have blazing speed, but as his 19.4 yards-per-catch average suggests, he can get down field. Like many receivers, he enjoyed the best game of his career against Notre Dame in 2006, catching five passes for 110 yards.

The real challenge is finding receivers to play opposite Root. Senior Ty Paffett (5-11, 180), a former cornerback who played two games at halfback in 2006 before an injury ended his season, is listed as a starting Z receiver on the spring depth chart. Paffett isn’t likely to hold the job through the fall, though.

Sophomore Sean Quintana (6-2, 205) had a productive spring and could emerge in the fall. Junior Spencer Armstrong (6-1, 195) had 11 catches for 178 yards and two touchdowns, making him the team’s third-leading receiver. Juniors Matt Davis (5-11, 175) and Mike Moffett (5-11, 195) will compete for time, though neither has caught a collegiate pass.

Sophomore Anthony Hemphill (6-2, 190) played in three games as a true freshman, which speaks well of his talent. He didn’t record any statistics in the games — BYU, Army and Notre Dame — though. It’s not out of the question Hall could see time at the Z receiver spot as well.

There is much uncertainty at wide receiver, but that isn’t the case at tight end. Senior Travis Dekker (6-4, 240) will be counted on for production despite having just four career catches for 40 yards.

“Being able to utilize the tight end can be a benefit to what we are doing,” Calhoun said. “It gives you a chance to put a big body on the line of scrimmage so you don’t have outside backers rushing off the edge easy, and they are easy guys to find in the middle of the field.”

Senior Chris Evans (6-2, 240) and junior Keith Madsen (6-3, 230) will back Dekker up.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Air Force returns one starter along the offensive line and he’s changing positions, so there is much uncertainty up front. Further complicating matters, seniors Dan Holder (6-6, 280) and Ryan Zeman (6-4, 265), the expected starters at the tackles positions, both sprained knees and missed considerable time during the spring.Holder, expected to start on the left side, played the final eight games of last season, and Zeman saw action in nine games, giving both limited experience. Senior Chris Monson (6-4, 255), a converted defensive lineman, impressed with his play at left tackle in the spring, and he should push Holder.

Calhoun praised the spring work of sophomore right tackle Chris Campbell (6-5, 250), too. Campbell needs to add more mass to be an effective every down player.Senior Blaine Guenther (6-2, 270), who started every game at right tackle in 2006, is moving to center.

Sophomore Nicholas Charles (6-4, 280) is the likely starter at left guard. Charles started six of the final nine games last season, becoming the first freshman to start on the line since current senior Caleb Morris (6-2, 275) did so in 2004. Morris, the expected starter at right guard, has battled injuries since, slowing what looked like a promising career.

Juniors Andrew Pipes (6-1, 260) and Tyler Weeks (6-1, 270) will provide depth at the guard positions, but neither has great size. If Morris stays healthy and Charles continues to develop, the Falcons could have a good set of guards.

“We’ve got a ton of work to do there,” Calhoun said of his offensive line. “We are going to be inexperienced, but that is really our whole football team. We’ve got to have depth come to the forefront. There were some encouraging signs up front [in the spring].”

KICKERS

Junior Ryan Harrison (6-1, 175) missed 2006 because of being put on probation for a violation of Academy standards, but he returns to the team as the likely starter at place-kicker and punter. Harrison has a decent leg, but consistency is an issue. The kicking game was a problem for Air Force last season. The graduated Zach Sasser was just 4-of-9 from 30 yards or beyond.Sophomore Paul Pfluke (5-10, 185) will be the primary reserve.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Depth isn’t something Air Force will have an abundance of, but Calhoun will have ample bodies to play along his three-man defensive line. If Air Force is to improve on last year’s 4-8 mark, it will have to improve its run defense, which surrendered 1,695 yards and an average of 4.1 yards per carry.The line will be led by junior Jake Paulson (6-5, 260), who started five games and had 15 tackles, including three for loss, and two sacks. Paulson is the team’s most talented lineman but must translate that talent into consistent production.

Junior Keith Williams (6-6, 255) is the prospective starter at nose guard. Williams spent his first year and a half at Air Force as an offensive lineman but made the switch last season because of injuries. He played the final six games of 2006 on defense, finishing with four tackles.

Junior Ryan Kemp (6-5, 235) will man the end spot opposite Paulson. He finished last season with 26 tackles, but 17 came in the final five games, all starts.

The Falcons’ three starters have shown promise, but each is undersized, highlighting the importance of the depth at the position. Sophomores Myles Morales (6-3, 240) and Ben Garland (6-4, 240) and senior Josh Clayton (6-4, 240) are the top three reserves heading into the fall. Juniors Jeff Bohlman (6-4, 230), Jared Marvin (6-2, 230) and sophomore Adam Page (6-1, 230) will try to crack what could be a six-man rotation.

“We have six guys that will jump into the mix out of the front three spots,” Calhoun said. “If you had to say one area on the team where we have a little bit of depth, it’s probably in the defensive line. [Depth] is a great aid. It builds in some competition, which I think you need. I think it’s excellent for morale because you get more guys involved, and if you get somebody dinged up, at least the next guy that goes in there has played and isn’t too wide eyed.”

LINEBACKERS

The Falcons don’t have a lot of standout individual performers, but senior linebacker Drew Fowler (6-2, 235) is one of the league’s best. He led the MWC in tackles and finished 11th nationally, averaging 10.2 per game (123 on the season).Fowler, who had at least 10 tackles in seven games, including a career-high 18 against Navy, is the team’s most instinctive defensive player and an extremely sound tackler. Fowler earned first-team All-MWC honors for his efforts, the first Falcon to do so since Marchello Grady in 2003. Joining Fowler inside is senior Austin Randle (6-0, 230), who played in all 12 games last year and had 42 tackles.

Sophomores Jon Falgout (6-0, 215) and Daniel Hill (6-1, 190) will be the primary reserves at inside linebacker.

On the outside, Air Force has a pair of returning starters and a hard charging reserve, but is otherwise thin. Seniors John Rabold (6-4, 220) and Julian Madrid (6-0, 205) return as starters. Rabold, who started the final 11 games at the ‘Falcon’ linebacker spot, was second on the team in tackles with 68, including a team-leading 5.5 for loss. Rabold was one of the unit’s few playmakers, intercepting two passes and forcing a fumble.

Madrid started 11 games as well, finishing with 50 tackles, including a team-high four sacks. He also had two interceptions and a forced fumble.

Junior Hunter Altman (5-11, 195) will see action as well. Altman played in all 12 games last year, primarily at ‘Falcon’ back, and was a special teams standout, returning a blocked punt for a touchdown against TCU. Behind those three are juniors Trent Burney (6-2, 185) and Garrett Gilbertson (6-4, 230) and sophomore Clay Bryant (6-1, 200). Only Gilbertson, who is making the move from defensive end and has four career tackles to his credit, has played a varsity down.

“We are very thin,” Calhoun said. “We need them to play like old guys. They’ve been a little hot and cold here at the Academy, and it’s time for them to get to the point where they are pretty darn warm most of the time.”

DEFENSIVE BACKS

Air Force allowed opponents to complete 66.7 percent of their passes a season ago and surrendered 20 touchdown passes, leaving considerable room for improvement in the secondary.The strength of the unit will be at safety, where juniors Bobby Giannini (6-2, 210) and Aaron Kirchoff (6-1, 200) and sophomore Chris Thomas (5-11, 198) form a solid corps. Giannini, who has more career tackles (223) than any active Air Force player, will start at free safety. Giannini has played superbly at times and now just needs to maintain his level of play on a consistent basis.

Thomas enjoyed an excellent true freshman campaign, totaling 25 tackles and equaling the team high with two interceptions, despite limited duty. The first year for any cadet is the most difficult, and given the way Thomas performed last season, it’s not unrealistic to think he could be one of the defense’s surprise performers.

Kirchoff played in 12 games, and his most dramatic contributions were on special teams, where he recovered two fumbles, but he has shown promise in the secondary. He earned his first career start in the final game of the season against TCU and had a career-high 10 tackles.

Behind the big three are Luke Yeager (5-11, 180) and Trey Eaton (6-2, 180), both juniors, and sophomore Blake Brooks (6-0, 180).

Of far greater concern to Air Force are the two cornerback positions. The Falcons had only 18 sacks a season ago, so strong coverage is a must. Senior Garrett Ryback (5-11, 175) returns at one cornerback spot. He made 48 tackles last year but had just one interception and didn’t break up a single pass. In fairness to Ryback, Air Force broke up only 21 passes as team in 303 opponent attempts.

Sophomore Kevin Rivers (6-0, 190) is the projected starter at the other corner despite not playing a varsity down last year. He will have to hold off the challenge of senior Carson Bird (5-11, 190), who started nine games as a sophomore but saw limited action in 2006. Bird made 52 tackles in 2005, but that number plummeted to five in his junior season.

Junior Nathan Smith (5-10, 180) and Yeager will provide depth.

When asked to assess the situation at cornerback, Calhoun said, the Falcons “have a ways to go.”

PUNTERS

Harrison will replace the graduated Sasser at punter as well. Sasser averaged a respectable 40.8 yards per punt, a number Harrison would do well to duplicate.Sophomore Brandon Geyer (6-4, 190) is the backup punter.

SPECIAL TEAMS

The Falcons coverage and returns teams were strong a season ago, and there is no reason to believe they won’t be again. Air Force limited opponents to just 13.4 yards on kick returns, an extremely impressive number.Thomas averaged 23 yards per kickoff return and could standout out in the role again. Who will return punts remains uncertain, but the most important thing will be forcing more punts. Air Force averaged 13.2 yards, but returned only 11 punts in 2006.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

Grading the Falcons

Calhoun’s first year at his alma mater probably won’t be an easy one. He is succeeding a legend in DeBerry and inheriting a team that doesn’t appear to have the talent to compete in what should be a stronger MWC.

Instead of focusing strictly on the team’s won-loss record, which won’t likely be pretty in the early going, it might be more instructive to focus on how much improvement the team shows as the season progresses. After opening with South Carolina State, Air Force plays Utah, TCU, BYU and Navy in consecutive weeks before the schedule eases up a bit.

Injuries, none particularly serious, were a problem in the spring, but if the Falcons are to have any chance, they must stay healthy. Air Force doesn’t have the depth to sustain many injuries, large or small.

The Falcons will do well to match last year’s total of four wins. Anything beyond that would be a considerable bonus.

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