By Gregg Xenakes, Associate College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: Playing in the shadows of BYU and Utah for many years, and now TCU, the Air Force Falcons have become a second-tier squad in the Mountain West Conference, but that doesn't mean that they are no longer a formidable adversary. The academy got off on the right foot to begin 2009 with
a 72-0 slaughter of Nicholls State, but by no means did that score accurately
represent what the Falcons truly were a season ago. Were it not for a 20-13
loss to Minnesota on the road in week two, the academy would have been off to
a perfect 4-0 start, thanks to victories over the likes of New Mexico and San
Diego State in league action later in September. Refusing to roll over against
the more powerful opponents on the schedule, Air Force took Navy to overtime
before losing in Annapolis, 16-13, and then seven days later the Falcons
pushed mighty TCU to the brink in a 20-17 setback at home. Throw in a 23-16
overtime loss to Utah on October 24, and the slate was filled with meetings
that could have easily fallen in favor of the Falcons. Before losing at BYU
(38-21) in the regular-season finale in Provo, Air Force picked up three
straight wins over Colorado State, Army and UNLV and earned itself a second
straight trip to the Houston Bowl against the Houston Cougars.
Even though he was in just his third year with Air Force, head coach Troy
Calhoun knew full well what to expect from the Cougars, given that the Falcons
had played them twice the previous season and lost to Houston by a score of
34-28 in the same bowl game. Calhoun, who returned to the academy after
spending time as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the
Houston Texans in 2006, was going up against the top passing offense in the
entire nation in Houston, but to his credit he had built the Falcons into one
of the country's top pass defenses as well, so while defeating the Cougars was
certainly a possibility, few predicted the academy would respond with a
lopsided 47-20 win in enemy territory.
For the third year in a row Calhoun led the Falcons to at least eight wins
(8-5) and had the squad playing an integral part in the continuing growth of
the MWC as the team posted five wins in eight opportunities. Air Force placed
third in the nation in rushing with 283.5 ypg and was ranked 10th in the
Football Bowl Subdivision with just 15.7 ppg allowed in 2009.
OFFENSE: In terms of replacing the entire offensive line, coach Calhoun knows
that's a big task. "About two weeks into Spring ball I thought, this is going
to be an excellent offensive line in 2011...It'll be a good group, and if they
can stay healthy it will be a crew that can help us run the football and do a
good job of protecting the quarterback when we get into the month of November.
We just want that to happen in September."
The one certainty Calhoun and the Falcons have on offense again this year is
quarterback Tim Jefferson who is still just a junior but seemingly has already
accomplished so much with the Air Force football team. As has been the M.O.
for the squad for so many years now, the passing attack takes a back seat to
what the group is able to do on the ground. Once again the Falcons led the
conference in rushing last season with 283.5 ypg, placing them third in the
nation as well. Jefferson was not only one of seven players to gain at least
200 yards on the ground, generating 254 yards and four touchdowns, he also
threw for five scores which, while it doesn't sound like much, gives defenses
something else to consider when they line up across from the Falcons.
There are countless backs from which to choose from, ranging between Jared Tew
(970 yards, nine touchdowns) to Asher Clark (865 yards, seven TDs). The real
question will be whether or not the newly created offensive line will be able
to gel together and create the holes needed to keep the running backs
barreling down the field one snap after the other.
Making note of receivers in the Air Force offense usually isn't that big of a
deal, but the fact that Jonathan Warzeka and Kevin Fogler are returning is a
major happening because the pair combined to trade in 43 receptions for more
than 800 yards and six touchdowns last season, again giving the Falcon offense
another reliable option than merely slamming the ball into the line of
scrimmage play after play.
DEFENSE: "You look at our football team as a whole, we've got five starters
back on offense, five starters back on defense," coach Calhoun has observed,
but filling in the gaps will not be that easy. "A lot of the way we were able
to operate defensively (last season) was because of how forceful and dominant
Ben Garland was...our guys in the secondary were prosperous because of the
play of Ben Garland." Unfortunately, Garland is one of the players that
Calhoun will have to find a replacement for on defense, but he believes he has
a good substitute in Ryan Gardner at the nose tackle position.
Adding to the three-man front with Gardner will be senior Rick Ricketts and
junior Wylie Wikstrom as the presumed starters. Ricketts is actually the top
returning tackler for the Falcons, having made 57 stops a year ago. Ricketts
was also one of the team leaders in sacks with four, leading to a loss of 28
The middle of the field will mix youth with vets as Andre Morris and Brady
Amack help Wale Lawal, Jr. and James Chambers learn the ropes. Getting some
hard hitters in this group will go a long way in creating the sort of pass
defense that ranked first in the MWC and fifth in the country last year with
just 154.3 ypg allowed.
Clearly, another key component of the pass defense is Anthony Wright who has
gone from being All-MWC Second Team last year to appearing on the 2010 Lott
Trophy Watch List. Wright ranked sixth nationally with his seven interceptions
and set a school record with three picks in the Armed Forces Bowl. With that
sort of pedigree opponents will think twice about throwing the ball in his
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Erik Soderberg proved his worth last season when he
knocked through 22-of-30 field goals, going a perfect 14-of-14 inside of 30
yards, but hitting just half of his 16 tries beyond that point. Besides his
trouble making longer kicks, the bigger issue for the Falcons might be why is
he having to line up on the field for so many attempts in the first place? In
terms of punting, Keil Bartholomew will be the top man now that he's a senior.
Last season Bartholomew sat behind Brandon Geyer waiting for his chance, but
with Geyer averaging 43 yards per kick it was bound to be a long wait for
Bartholomew. When it comes to bringing punts back the other way, you would
think that Wright would be asked to do double duty again since he was the one
who was able to score the team's lone punt return TD of the season in 2009.
OUTLOOK: As a service academy, Air Force players always have more on their
plate than the other student athletes around the nation and that's probably
the main reason why the Falcons will always have trouble chasing the big dogs
in the Mountain West. The squad does start off the campaign with a softball in
Northwestern State at home, but after that the Falcons head right into the
league schedule versus BYU and then face off against Oklahoma on the road,
refusing to take the easy way out on the non-conference slate. With as many
teams as there are in the league still trying to reverse their fortunes, Air
Force will have its share of wins, but becoming bowl eligible and appearing in
the postseason is another story altogether.