Troy Calhoun was hired to breathe life into an Air Force football program that stagnated in the final years of coach Fisher DeBerry’s tenure. As an Academy alum with an NFL pedigree, Calhoun seemed a good fit from the start, but only the most optimistic fans envisioned the success he enjoyed in his first season at Air Force.
Calhoun inherited a team that hadn’t had a winning record since 2003 and returned just 10 positional starters. All Calhoun did was lead the team to the nation’s third largest turnaround in 2007.
Air Force went from 4-8 in 2006 to 9-4 and an appearance in the Armed Forces Bowl last season. The five-win improvement was surpassed only by BCS participants Illinois and Kansas.
The 2007 season was by almost any measure one of the best in Falcons history. It was just the 10th time Air Force won as many as nine games in a season, but the current Mountain West offers the strongest conference competition the team has ever faced.
The Falcons went 6-2 in MWC play, their best mark ever, went undefeated at home for the third time in school history, and like nearly everyone else, routed Notre Dame.
If not for a knee injury that knocked quarterback Shaun Carney out of the game, Air Force could have held on to beat California in the Armed Forces Bowl, but 2007 isn’t a season the Falcons will look back and wonder what might have been.
“Of any team I’ve ever been a part of, this group came as close to absolutely tapping out their abilities as you possibly could have,” said Calhoun, who was chosen MWC Coach of the Year. “You always look back as a coach and say you could have done this or could have done that, but for the Air Force Academy to win nine games in this conference by those kids is an incredible achievement.”
Calhoun deflects praise for last year’s success to his players, noting correctly that 26 seniors made his job easier, but he deserves a lion’s share of the credit for the turnaround.
Calhoun brought a young man’s energy to the job (he will turn 42 on Sept. 6) and he stocked his staff with eager young assistants that understand the challenges of playing football at Air Force, an overlooked aspect to last season’s success. Nine of the 14 members of the Falcons’ coaching staff are alums — no other Football Bowl Subdivision team surpasses 50 percent. Seven assistants have graduated within the last 10 years, meaning the Falcons will have one of the youngest staffs in the nation.
When Calhoun, who was the offensive coordinator for the Houston Texans in 2006, took over. there were questions about the direction he would take Air Force’s option attack, with some suggesting the team would look to throw a lot more. The Falcons did throw the ball a lot more, relatively speaking. Air Force attempted 32 percent more passes in 2007 but still averaged just 16 attempts per game.
Calhoun understood the strengths of his personnel and played to them. Air Force won a conference rushing title for the 10th consecutive season, averaging 299.5 yards per game, the nation’s second best figure. The Falcons’ offense was powered by Carney and Chad Hall, who was chosen MWC Offensive Player of the Year after rushing for 1,478 yards and 15 touchdowns and catching 50 passes for 524 yards.
Hall, who played the Z wide receiver spot, carried the ball just 28 times in the first five games, but after a 31-20 loss at Navy, Calhoun made him the focal point of the offense and Air Force began to soar. Hall didn’t carry the ball fewer than 18 times in the final eight games, and the Falcons scored at least 31 points seven times in that stretch.
The memory of last season’s success is still fresh, but the 2008 Falcons will bear little resemblance to their immediate predecessors. Air Force is returning just three starters on offense and five on defense, and the lack of experience forced Calhoun to handle spring practice a little differently.
“We have so little experience, especially on offense — just three returning starters and not one of them is a skill guy — that we probably did as much 11 on 11 scrimmaging work as anything I’ve ever been apart of,” Calhoun said. “There is no way you are ever going to simulate game experience, but you can make those training grounds extremely profitable and as close to game experience as you would like as a coach.”
For the first time in four years, Air Force has experienced success, which should be beneficial. Duplicating last year’s nine wins will be difficult, but after a spring that saw progress, if not consistency, Calhoun isn’t going to write 2008 off to rebuilding.
“The consistency is not there, yet,” Calhoun said. “I don’t think I can expect it to be there either. I like the way these guys play. We’ve got guys that don’t injure easily. You’ve got guys you are proud to have as teammates … They are Academy kids. We’ve got a long, long ways to go, yet it’s feasible for us to be a quality team this fall. It will be tough, it will be really tough, but it can be done.”
Shaun Carney’s graduation leaves a gaping hole under center. Air Force’s career leader in total offense (7,952 yards), rushing attempts (652) and touchdowns (31), Carney made 44 career starts and had experience that isn’t easily replaced.
As practice opens in August, the competition to replace Carney remains an open one. Senior Shea Smith (5-11, 190) entered the spring with a slight advantage based on the fact he saw some playing time in 2007, completing 4-of-12 passes and rushing for 39 yards in six games.
Smith, whose father Scott Smith, played on Baylor’s 1980 Southwest Conference Championship team, was unable to seize the job in the spring. Junior Eric Herbort (5-11, 185), who Calhoun called one of the team’s most improved players, made a strong bid for the job and may hold a slight advantage entering the fall.
Herbort is a better runner than Smith, but he has never taken a snap in college, making a quarterback platoon a real possibility.
“Maybe we will play a couple of them,” Calhoun said. “Shea had a solid spring. I thought Eric Herbort had a solid spring. Those two guys, I don’t think one is that much further ahead of the other. There were days I thought Shea played better, and there were days I thought Eric made a few more things happen.
“With Herbort I think you see a guy that has got better feet. He’s got some quickness, he’s got some acceleration. He just has never been in a varsity game, so experience is something he lacks.”
The nation’s second most powerful rushing attack graduated 88 percent of its production, or more specifically, 3,455 of the 3,894 yards gained in 2007. The bulk of the damage was done by Hall, who is listed as a wide receiver but often lined up at tailback, but Air Force is starting over in the backfield.
Sophomore Savier Stephens (5-11, 190) gained 150 yards last season, more than any other returnee, and he is atop the spring depth chart. But Stephens is hardly assured of a starting spot in the fall. Sophomore Kyle Lumpkin (5-9, 180) made the switch from cornerback and had a strong spring, making him a viable candidate for the job.
Sophomore Jared Tew (6-1, 205) and junior D.J. Ford (5-9, 180), also a former defensive back, are very much in the mix as well. All four backs will have a chance to stake their claim to the top spot, and Calhoun would be delighted to see one of them separate from the pack.
The fullback position doesn’t face the same uncertainty. Senior Todd Newell (5-10, 210), who played in all 13 games last season and rushed for 63 yards, should be a productive starter. Sophomore Ryan Southworth (5-10, 225) is the top fullback reserve.
The Falcons graduate both starting wide receivers, including Chad Hall, who played the hybrid Z position. Finding a way to replace Hall’s production is priority No. 1. He caught 50 of the team’s 130 passes and was 19th in the nation in rushing.
Replacing Hall will likely require increased production from several spots but senior Ty Paffett (5-11, 180) will man the position. A former defensive back, Paffett finished last season with 123 yards rushing on just 14 carries. His season was highlighted by a 7-carry, 105-yard, three-touchdown performance against San Diego State that included a 74-yard jaunt.
“He’s got good straight ahead speed, and he is physical,” Calhoun said. “He will have to stay healthy. He is one of those guys that had a few too many nicks and injuries physically. Now, as a senior, I think he realizes this is his last [chance].”
Sophomore Kyle Halderman (5-11, 175) is second on the depth chart, but near the end of spring practice, Calhoun experimented with cornerback Reggie Rembert (5-7, 175), a sophomore, playing the Z position, and the results were encouraging. How much Rembert, the team’s best cornerback, will play on offense remains a mystery, but Calhoun knows he must maximize his talent.
“I think you have to be as resourceful as anywhere in the country [at the Academy],” Calhoun said when asked about playing Rembert on offense. “If you have a guy that has some movement, some quickness, some burst, then I think you have to find a way to get those guys involved as much as possible.”
Junior Sean Quintana (6-2, 205), who wasn’t listed on the depth chart at the start of last season but worked his way onto the field, will start at the other receiver position. Quintana started seven games last season, catching eight passes for 67 yards and a touchdown. Senior Spencer Armstrong (6-1, 195), who had three catches for 68 yards, will back up Quintana. Armstrong missed the first five games recovering from a hamstring injury in 2007, but his play upon his return offered hope for a solid senior season.
The most productive returnee on the Air Force offense is senior tight end Travis Dekker (6-4, 245), who caught 25 passes for 382 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Dekker has good hands and the ability to make big plays, averaging a healthy 15.3 yards per reception. He should provide a considerable safety net to either Smith or Herbort.
Senior Keith Madsen (6-2, 230) will back Dekker up. He caught five passes for 49 yards and two touchdowns.
By way of comparison, the Air Force offensive line seems comprised of grizzled veterans, with two returning starters. The unit will have questions to answer but there is reason to believe the line will be the offense’s strength.
Senior Keith Williams (6-4, 285) returns at left tackle and junior Nick Charles (6-4, 285) will again start at left guard, Charles was a second-team All-MWC selection in 2007 and should be even better this season. Sophomore Jake Morrow (6-3, 280) will be the backup left guard and Calhoun believes he has a bright future.
Sophomore Matt Markling (6-6, 270) is gifted physically and could be a future standout.
“Markling has good size [but] we’ve got to get the light to come on for him where he is cutting loose and playing ball,” Calhoun said. “Sometimes I just see a guy that is a little to tentative, trying to be perfect all the time, and he is inhibiting his ability to be a football player.”
Markling will partner with Morrow to give Air Force excellent depth on the left side.
Senior Andrew Pipes (6-1, 265), who played in 10 games last season, will start at center. Junior Michael Hampton (6-2, 275) will push Pipes for playing time.
On the right side of the line, junior Peter Lusk (6-3, 275) will start at guard and junior Chris Campbell (6-3, 270) at tackle. Senior Tyler Weeks (6-1, 270) will provide depth behind Lusk, while sophomore Ben Marshall (6-4, 245) will be no. 2 on the depth chart at tackle.
There is uncertainty with three new starters on the line, but there were reasons for encouragement exiting the spring.
“We are further ahead than where we were last spring, but we don’t play cohesively enough right now,” Calhoun said. “We are one of those groups, especially up front, that has to gel in a hurry.”
There is uncertainty throughout the Air Force depth chart, but the Falcons are secure with senior Ryan Harrison (6-1, 180) handling place-kicking duties. Harrison equaled the Air Force record with 19 made field goals last season, and he converted 19-of-27 attempts. Harrison has a very strong leg — he made three field goals longer than 50 yards, including a 57-yarder against TCU. Harrison closed last season by making his final nine kicks, so he will enter 2008 full of confidence.
The strength of this team should be its defensive line, where three starters are returning. But the line suffered a blow in spring practice when senior nose guard Jared Melvin (5-11, 265) went down with a torn ACL. Calhoun hopes to have Melvin, who had 27 tackles a season ago, back by mid-September, but that might be optimistic given the weight he carries.
Until Melvin returns, senior Jake Paulson (6-5, 265) could play in the middle, along with junior Stephen Larsen (6-1, 255). If Melvin is unable to make a full recovery, it will hurt the defense and could hinder Calhoun’s hopes of using a four-man line on occasion.
Junior Ben Garland (6-5, 270) and senior Ryan Kemp (6-5, 255) give the Falcons a pair of proven defensive ends. Kemp, an honorable mention all-conference choice, had 54 tackles, four sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss in 2007. Garland started the final eight games of the season and finished with 31 tackles and 3 sacks.
Depending on Melvin’s status, Garland is also capable of playing the middle, allowing Paulson to move to defensive end.
Sophomore Rick Ricketts (6-3, 260) will provide depth at defensive end as well.
Air Force lost a pair of all-conference linebackers in Jon Rabold, a first-team selection, and Drew Fowler, a second-team honoree. Fowler led the team in tackles (119), recording more than 100 for the second consecutive season, and Rabold was the unit’s playmaker, finishing with 74 tackles, 17.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks and four recovered fumbles.
Their losses won’t be easy to absorb, but the Falcons do have talent, led by senior Hunter Altman (6-0, 215), a starting outside linebacker last season. Altman finished with 62 tackles, including 10 for loss, and showed the ability to be a playmaker. With a year of starting experience, he should play with more consistency and be one of the unit’s anchors.
Starting opposite Altman on the outside will be sophomore Andre Morris (6-3, 230), who was the most improved defensive player in the spring. Morris has the physical tools and excellent size by Air Force standards. He was one of only three freshmen to play in every game last season, joining Rembert and William Kuechler (6-0, 200) who will serve as Altman’s backup. Morris has a lot to learn but he has considerable upside.
Juniors John Falgout (6-0, 225) and Clay Bryant (6-1, 205) will compete with senior Brandon Reeves (6-1, 230) and sophomore Ken Lamendola (6-2, 230) for the two starting positions. Of the quartet, only Lamendola and Reeves recorded tackles last season, registering two each.
The secondary was decimated by the graduation of three starters, including first team all-conference cornerback Carson Bird, who had six interceptions. Also gone is fellow cornerback Garrett Rybak, a two-year starter, and Bobby Giannini, a three-year starter at safety.
Junior Chris Thomas (5-11, 205) returns as the starting strong safety. Thomas could be poised for an all-conference caliber year, coming off a 2007 season that saw him record 110 tackles, including nine for loss, and a team-high 10 pass breakups.
Senior Aaron Kirchoff (6-1, 205) will be the starter at free safety. Kirchoff was productive in a reserve role last season, playing in all 13 games and finishing with 39 tackles.
Reggie Rembert, who totaled 22 tackles as a freshman, will start at one of the cornerback positions and should be solid from the outset. The concern is who starts at the opposite corner. Senior Keith Rivers (6-0, 193) played every game last season, but he was more a special teams standout than secondary stalwart. Rivers was atop the spring depth chart, but he is far from a lock to start.
He will have to fend off challenges from sophomore Elliott Battle (5-9, 170) and juniors Devon Ford (5-9, 180) and Brenton Byrd (5-10, 190), who made the switch from tail-back.
Kicker Ryan Harrison should more than adequately handle the punting duties. He averaged 42.9 yards per kick in 2007, including an 81-yarder against TCU, and pinned eight balls inside the 20.
Rembert should give the Falcons an explosive presence as return man. He ranked 10th in the MWC in kick returns last season, averaging 22.8 yards per return. Paffett could also see time returning kicks.
Air Force’s coverage teams were outstanding in 2007, allowing 18.2 yards on kick returns and 8.9 yards on punt returns. The graduation losses won’t be easy to overcome on special teams either, but expect the Falcons to again be among the league’s best.
|Grading the Falcons|
On paper it’s hard to envision Air Force returning to a bowl, much less matching last year’s nine-win total. There is uncertainty about who will start at quarterback and tailback, and the all-important Z wide receiver position will be manned by a player with 14 career carries.
Defensively, the Falcons’ starting nose guard suffered a torn ACL in spring practice, making his availability to open the season questionable. The linebackers and secondary were hit hard by graduation.
Did we mention a schedule that won’t give the young Falcons much of a chance to settle in slowly? Air Force opens the season with Southern Utah and a trip to what should be an improved Wyoming team. Then the Falcons play three consecutive games against bowl teams a year ago — Houston, Utah and Navy.
The middle part of the schedule is manageable and will probably be the determining factor in whether Air Force is again in the postseason picture. The Falcons play road games against San Diego State, UNLV and Army, while hosting New Mexico and Navy. It’s not easy to win on the road, but those are the softest teams on the schedule, so the Falcons need to play well before closing the season with BYU at home and TCU on the road.
The reasons to believe year two of the Calhoun era will be difficult are many. But the same things were said heading into last season. Admittedly the presence of 26 seniors made last year’s success a little easier to envision, but the players on this year’s team have the benefit of experiencing success.
Will Air Force win nine games again? Probably not. But sleep on the Falcons at your own peril. The answers to the questions about the Air Force offense aren’t easy to find heading into the season, but expect Calhoun and his staff to find them. Air Force will probably get better as the season goes along, and with a couple of breaks could return to postseason play.