Air Force Will Contend For The Mountain West Crown: Breaking Down The Falcons
Spring practice is still a few weeks away in Colorado Springs, buts it’s never too early to begin to look ahead to next season. The Falcons concluded a 9-4 campaign in 2010 with a victory in the AdvoCare Independence Bowl over Georgia Tech. Air Force will look to take the momentum from their second consecutive bowl win into the 2011 season. The offensive and defensive units are both losing some key talent and contributors, but the Falcons have plenty of play makers returning to push for a conference title.
The Air Force football team personifies the expression: "The whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Not that the Falcons don't have their fair share of play makers, but the key to their success lies in the way they play as team. Here is an early look at those parts, and how they will add up to a very tough team in 2011.
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Air Force boasted an offense that ranked second in the nation with 317.9 yards per game on the ground, and that success should continue next season. The Falcon's option attack revolves around the decision making of quarterback Tim Jefferson. Jefferson accounted for over 2250 yard of offense and 25 touchdowns last season. 794 of those yards and 15 of those scores came on the ground. His quickness and power make Jefferson lethal near the goal line, but he also demonstrated the ability to break away from defenses with scoring runs of 38, 50, and 59 yards last season. He also added 1,459 yards and 10 touchdowns through the air. This dual-threat keeps improving with each season, and don't expect his senior campaign to be any different.
Behind Jefferson will be Connor Dietz. Dietz is a great reserve and has a great play making ability. He is a great, lightening quick runner and can move the offense down the field.
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When Jefferson isn't passing or running the ball himself, he will be distributing the ball to a very solid backfield. Air Force is returning just their third 1,000 yard rusher in history in halfback Asher Clark. Clark gained 1,031 yards and 5 touchdowns on the ground in 2010. He is a fast back with an uncanny ability to stay on his feet through hosts of tacklers despite is 5'8" 185 pound stature. As the Falcon's leading returning rusher, look for Clark to carry the load on the ground next season. At the other halfback slot in this predominately three running back offense could be Cody Getz or Darius Jones. Both have great speed and have shown potential to be serious contributors in this offense.
The efforts of Jared Tew and Nathan Walker at the fullback position will be missed. The duo combined for 1,075 yards and 10 scores. Having a threat at fullback is a key in this offense, but a starter will certainly emerge during spring ball. Rising juniors Wes Cobb and Mike Dewitt have the most experience at the position, but rising sophomore Brett Michaels could challenge for some playing time.
Running the football may be the focus for the Falcon offense, but don't sleep on their receivers just yet. Air Force has a group of receivers who are poised to really gash defenses when given the chance. Leading this group is Jonathan Warzeka. Warzeka, Air Force's leading receiver last season with 406 yards, averaged over 20 yards per catch in 2010. The Falcon's also return Zach Kauth, who emerged as a serious threat late in the season with 274 receiving yards and 4 touchdowns. This pair should be Jefferson's primary targets next season.
Air Force relies on their receivers in all aspects of the game. Warzeka was also a threat on the ground compiling 312 yards on 41 attempts for 4 scores. Rising junior Mikel Hunter was also a big play threat for the Falcons, averaging 14 yards per carry as a receiver. His three touchdowns in 2010 (2 rushing, 1 receiving) were all game breakers.
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We all know the key to the running game's success is the offensive line. Air Force will return 3 starters on the line, lead by 2nd team all Mountain West performer A.J. Wallerstein. The Falcons don't boast the biggest line in the nation, but they could make a claim that they have the fastest. It far from uncommon to see an Air Force lineman cutting off a safety 20 yards down field. This group plays hard and fast and can be a nightmare to opposing defenses. Aside from Wallerstein, Air Force is returning starters in center Michael Hester and left tackle Jason Kons. The Falcons also return key reserve Jordan Eason, who played in every game in 2010.
The Front Seven
Air Force runs a 3-4 defense and the front seven came up with some big plays last season. On the line, the Falcons return nose tackle Ryan Gardner and end Zach Payne. The other end slot should be filled by Caleb Koneman or Ben Kopacka.
As for the line backers, the Falcons loose their vocal leader Andre Morris Jr. and their leading tackler for loss Pat Hennessey. However, they return their leading tackler Jordan Waiwaiole and Brady Amack who ranked third on the team in tackles. Waiwaiole was a great surprise for fans last season, as he made some big plays for Air Force on defense. He had 96 tackles with 7.5 of them for a loss, along with 2 sacks. Waiwaiole also had an interception and a forced fumble which he returned 52 yards for a touchdown. Look for his playing making ability and Amack's ability against the run to lead the Air Force front seven next season.
Air Force will get a big boost from senior linebacker Ken Lamendola who returns from injury. Lamendola lead the Falcons with 117 tackles during his sophomore campaign. Some of the other challengers for the open two line backing slots will be Alex Means, Cecilio Carter, and Austin Niklas.
When you have the 5th ranked defense against the pass, you must have a good secondary. Air Force will only loose one starter going into 2011, and while that starter was a great one in All-American corner back Reggie Rembert, the outlook looks good for the Falcons. Leading this secondary will be corner back Anthony Wright Jr. Wright has started 36 straight for Air Force and has built up quite the reputation as a shut down corner. Quarterbacks tend to think twice before throwing his way, and they should as Wright has 10 interceptions for his career.
When opposing offenses aren't throwing the ball in Wright's direction they will be faced with Safety Jon Davis. Davis was terrific against the pass in 2010, with 3 interceptions. He also posted 93 tackles and 2 forced fumbles, the type of production you want out of your safety. The other safety slot should be filled by Brian Lindsay. Lindsay started the first 6 games for the Falcons before his season was cut short with a broken collar bone. Look for him to come back strong next season.
PJ Adeji-Paul, Josh Hall, Kevin Jablonski, and Anthony Wooding Jr. all saw serious playing time in 2010 and they will continue to contribute in 2011.
Placekicker Eric Soderburg returns for the Falcons and while he only converted half of his field goals last season, he was 42-44 on PATs and has a strong leg. If he finds more consistency in the off-season, look for Soderburg to connect on some big kicks next year.
Jonathan Warzeka and Cody Getz should continue to handle return duty for Air Force next year. The two speedsters combined for 800 return yards in 2010. Warzeka had the second 100 yard return of his career last season, and is the only Falcon to take a kick-off all the way in over 20 years.
Normally defensive special teams rarely get mentioned, but Air Force found a play maker in Jamil Cooks last season. Cooks blocked a couple of kicks for the Falcons as a freshman, and the coaches would love to see more of the same from him next year.
Air Force must replace punter Keil Bartholomew who averaged 40 yards per punt last season.
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Air Force Head Coach Troy Calhoun has done a phenomenal job since he took over the reigns of the Falcons 4 years ago. Under Calhoun the Falcons have compiled a 34-18 record and bowl games have become the expectation of the coaches, players, and fans as Air Force has played in a bowl in every season since he took control.
Calhoun, a former Air Force quarterback, has assembled a staff that rivals any. Most of Calhoun's staff consists of former Air Force players who understand the demands of playing football at a service academy. The staff has been able to push the team and get the most out of their players. The job done by the coaches at Air Force shouldn't go unnoticed.
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After their warm-up with South Dakota, Air Force will jump straight into their conference schedule with three straight conference games. While the conference schedule is yet to be released, the Falcons will have two of their three toughest conference games at home against San Diego State and TCU. Their toughest conference game will be in Idaho against Boise State. The Broncos have posted a 64-2 record on the blue turf since 1999, but the way the Falcons play, they can never be counted out no matter who or where they play. Expect Air Force to travel to Boise and play a great game. Boise State doesn't normally face option teams, and that lack of experience certainly plays in the Falcon's favor.
The rest of the non conference schedule consists of the Battle for the Commander-In-Chief's trophy against Navy and Army, and a road game in South Bend against Notre Dame. The Falcons should maintain a tight grip on the trophy awarded to the annual winner of the service academy games. The trophy just got to Colorado Springs; I wouldn't expect it to leave too soon. The game against an upstart Notre Dame team is an intriguing match-up. The last time Air Force played the Irish in South Bend was in 2007, where the Falcons came away with a 42-24 blowout victory. Like I said before, Air Force can never be counted out and should never be overlooked.
The Sum of The Parts
The Air Force offense should continue their success next season. With players like Tim Jefferson, Asher Clark, and Jonathan Warzeka making plays, this offense will be hard to stop. They will certainly contend for the rushing title in college football.
The defense will be the same tough Falcon defense it always is. The play makers of 2010 should be the same play makers in 2011. The opposing passing game should continue to be locked up from the git-go, and while Air Force struggled against the run at times last season, this defense has always been able to make a play when it needed to give the offense one last shot.
Air Force has a very winnable schedule, particularly in conference, and they will contend for the Mountain West Championship. If Air Force can survive their trip to Boise, their schedule sets them up great to finish the job and bring a championship to Colorado Springs.
Expect big things from the Falcons this season. This is a hungry team thats ready to move to the top of the Mountain West.