OPPONENT PREVIEW: Air Force Falcons

Published September 21, 2011 by Ezra Hood

While TCU fans recover from the letdown at Baylor, Air Force is hoping to gear up for another win over rebuilding Frogs. That's the only way AFA has notched a win against TCU in the past, and Baylor showed the world that the Frogs are unequivocally rebuilding in 2011.

Coach Troy Calhoun likes his team to hit in practice—unlike NFL practices, where he was a coach before taking the reins at the Acadamy. Mostly, he didn’t adopt many of the NFL philosophies he saw because he thinks college players need live repetitions to improve. He said that’s especially the case at Air Force, where players can’t redshirt and they can’t enroll a semester early out of high school.

"Because of your body size, you have to be that good fundamentally," Calhoun said. "I think you have to block the way you block on game day, and tackle the way you tackle, so I think you have to have a ton of contact here... Anytime you’re working at the college level, there’s a development factor that has to occur with 18 years olds, from the time they’re 18 to 22 years old, that’s different for a 25- or 28-year-old."

Something else Calhoun insists on is a fast-paced practice. "There’s no lingering time, so when you do practice, if you want to be able to meet, lift and practice, when you do practice, the time you do have you have to make the utmost of it," Calhoun said. The speed also helps Air Force run its no-huddle offense, and keep its players well conditioned.

"Come game day, it’s almost easier," offensive tackle Jason Kons said. "Here, there’s coaches breathing down your neck, ‘You have 10 seconds to get on the ball! Next play! Next play! You screwed up - too bad, get on the ball!’"

This off-season, some of that hitting and running has happend in Air Force's new indoor practice facility, the Holaday Athletic Center, which cost $15.5 million and opened in July. "My first impression is, it's huge," said Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson, who attended the dedication ceremony. "I've seen every (practice facility) in the league ... you might be able to get some of those facilities inside this one."

Despite Air Force's senior-heavy team, coach Troy Calhoun says, "I'm fired up about our freshmen. We're going to have to play freshmen this year." Air Force is unique among TCU opponents in that its freshmen usually play on a junior-varsity team, in live games against other teams in the Jayhawk Conference. It's like a redshirt year for the incomers, only it spends eligibility. But because the young players run Air Force's schemes, instead of playing on a scout team, there usually isn't much dropoff in performance when a new player shows up in a Mountain West game.

Air Force is coming off a 9-4 season in which three quarterbacks completed 52.4 percent of 168 passes. This is a little low, historically, for the Academy, which completed almost 60 percent of its passes each year, 2004 to 2007. Tim Jefferson, who is entering his fourth year as a starter, completed 51.6 percent of 159 passes last season. He passed for 1,459 yards and 10 touchdowns and threw six interceptions. "We were in the top 30 in pass efficiency last year, but if we could complete 60 to 65 percent of our passes, we'd be much better off," said Jefferson. He says he is a few pounds lighter. "I stayed as strong as I was, I didn’t lose any muscle mass, so I’m going to be a little more forceful running the ball," Jefferson said.

Jefferson has grown into his role at the Academy, and may leave it redefined. At 6-2, 205-pound senior is the only service academy quarterback to start in three consecutive bowl games. Also, he and Rich Haynie (1971-73) are the only starting quarterbacks in Air Force history with three winning seasons. Does he compare his stats to other greats at the Academy? "That just takes work to go look it up," Jefferson said about his place in the record book. "That’s not worth putting forth effort to do."

Running the Academy’s triple option was difficult at first. "It was like a fire hose effect my whole freshman year," Jefferson said. "It was hard to grasp everything that was being thrown at me. I didn't get the big picture." Jefferson knows the big picture now, and the details, too. Calhoun says the QB is, " a good decision-maker. He knows where his players should be when we line up. We change that from week to week in terms of our game plan. Maturity always has been one of his strengths."

Backing up the senior is another senior, Connor Dietz. Freshman Mitch Griebel has gotten plenty of opportunities to show his skills in practice with the varsity team.

OL coach Clay Hendrix has three starters back, but he counts four returning starters because Jordan Eason played half the snaps at left guard. The only brand new starter is right tackle Kevin Whitt. "They were pretty good last year," Hendrix said. "You look back, we could be a lot better, though."

Senior guard A.J. Wallerstein agrees, "you can get better every day. It’s the little things – steps, pad level, hands, all of that. You can always have more yards." What the Air Force offensive line couldn’t care less about: its press clippings. But they may get some anyway. In 2010 they led the way to 5.3 yards per carry, the Academy’s best since 2007, and best in the conference (tied with TCU). With considerably more experience in 2011, expect more of what Wallerstein wants: yards. Wallerstein knows of what he speaks-- "He might be the smartest football player I’ve had," line coach Hendrix said. "It’s amazing the stuff he asks me. He has a great mind for the game. He’s about as total package of a guy as you’ve ever seen."

The starting front five are LT Jason Kons, LG Jordan Eason, C Michael Hester RG Jake Wallerstein, and RT Kevin Whitt. Eason spent some time out of practice with a knee injury, but he started the opener.

Tailback is manned by an equally productive and equally experienced returner, Asher Clark. Clark is a quiet person, who eschews hype. In the last two years, he never missed a game, tallying 333 carries. He has never missed a game due to injury in three years, and now has played in 36 straight consecutive games. He sees room for improvement, still. "In some games, I missed a lot of holes," Clark said of 2010, when he gained over 1,000 yards. "I was impatient at times. So I missed a lot of things, and that’s what I’m trying to work on." About those 1,000 yards? "We had a good offensive line and I couldn't have done it without that." Calhoun looks at his whole career, and not just one season. "Asher has had quality seasons all three years he's been here. I thought he ran behind his pads pretty well last year."

Behind Clark, Darius Jones, Cody Getz and Anthony LaCoste have impressed running backs coach Des Kitchings. "They’re very sharp in their assignments," Kitchings said. "It’s very comforting to have those three guys you know are capable of playing."

Freshman tailback Jon Lee may see playing time this season, too.

The only position on the offense in real question is fullback, after the one and two ‘backs graduated last year. Fullbacks Mike DeWitt and Wes Cobb led for the job going into August, and prided themselves in aggressive play. "To me, it’s who can deliver the biggest hit," Cobb said. "That’s what football is all about."

"I’ve never hit anyone as hard as I’ve hit those two," defensive end Zach Payne said. "When they hit you, you feel it." At 196 pounds, Cobb is an unlikely-looking fullback, but he gets tough yards. "He’s got big legs, and those legs keep churning too," Payne said last month. "He’s tough to tackle. He’s a bowling ball coming through there."

After playing fullback in high school, Cobb switched to tailback at Air Force for a year, and then back to fullback before last season. "As a tailback, you’re expected to be a little more elusive, bring the power and elusiveness in the open field. At fullback you’re going in the trenches all the time," Cobb said. "You have to stay low, keep grinding and if something’s not there you have to make something happen. That’s what Air Force football is all about."

DeWitt is a more typical fullback at 6-1, 220 pounds; freshman Ben Souther might end up in the rotation at fullback, as well.

But the little guy is taking all the starting snaps. "What we’ve seen so far, Wesley Cobb, down in, down out, has been more consistent, on the field and off the field, everything that’s involved that way. You can’t have a better teammate," Calhoun said. "He’s a warrior through and through. He’ll be a solid fullback for us this year. We need to have somebody else come on and emerge, because we need depth at that position."

Who will Air Force throw the ball to? The returners are Zack Kauth (6-5) and Jonathan Warzeka (ht). Neither played with the first team all season. but together they tallied 12 touchdown catches. "It’s a night and day difference coming in this year, from last year," Kauth said. "Just knowing defenses, knowing what to expect in the games vs. practice, stuff like that." Kauth cut his 40-yard dash time down to less than 4.5 seconds, making him a remarkable target in Air Force’s passing game. "His consistency and durability are hopefully a little better this fall," Calhoun said.

Brandon Hirneise and Mikel Hunter are backups. Ty MacArthur, Acey Palmer, and direct-in freshmen Courtney Whitehead and Freshman Christian Gann have had some impressive moments in camp.

Air Force needs more reliable kicking that it got from Erik Soderberg last year, hitting just 5-of-10 field goals before he was benched for the final two games. Soderberg seems to have regained his starting role, with Zach Hoffmann as backup. They had an up-and-down August, said Calhoun, "We’ve had days when we’ve been hot and cold." Calhoun is not asking for much directional kicking this year, in hopes to generate more consistency.

To help the return teams, Air Force added a special teams coordinator position to tight ends coach Ben Miller's job description. He already worked with the punters, kickers and snappers. Calhoun wants to see a significant improvement in kickoff coverage, "I thought we were robots running down covering a kickoff," Calhoun said. "That’s a unit where you need to have guys that realize that’s the one time the screws don’t have to be tight upstairs and they can cut it loose a little bit."

"He’s just got a knack for where the hole is going to be, and he’s fearless," coach Miller said.

Return man Jonathan Warzeka studies the coverage teams he’ll face. Knowing where those opponents line up, and that his blockers react to opposing players differently, he visualizes where his running lanes will open up.

"I played quarterback in high school, and you need to know every position on the field," Warzeka said. "Same as being a kickoff returner. It helps to know which guys are setting up which blocks, where’s the double team at, and getting a layout in my mind.

ON DEFENSE, THE FALCONS return five of the front seven, and are looking for better run defense. Defensive tackle Ryan Gardner expects it, "A lot of us played with each other last year. We know each other well. We know what we’re going to do." Air Force is focusing on being more disruptive this season.

"When we looked at film, sacks were low compared to the standard that has been here the last three or four years, but we missed legitimate sacks in the backfield," defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt said. "It’s just finishing."

On the line, seniors Zach Payne (6- 3, 255), Ryan Gardner (6-2, 260) and Harry Kehs (6-4, 255) start. Seniors Ross Fleming (6-3, 250) and Ben Kopacka (6-5, 250) are expected to play a lot in a four-man front. Payne had a big junior year as a starter, including an eight-tackle game against Army. Kopacka tore his right ACL last season. "Oct. 28 is when I did it, surgery was Nov. 10, so that’s what I was really looking at, I had eight months to get this ready, can I do it?" Kopacka said. He's not yet playing at 100 percent, but Kopacka has built confidence in August. "I’ve never been hurt before, so my mind was scattered. But being able to come back on the field and focused has really helped me."

Freshman end Nick Fitzgerald, also in from the prep school, has worked at second-team

The meat of Air Force's defense is it linebackers. This is not a surprise—Wallerstedt was a linebacker, and he's coached inside linebackers since joining the staff at AFA. "We talked about this when we opened camp, one of the first things we addressed was, our defense is going to go as they go," Wallerstedt said. "The inside linebackers, putting that responsibility on them."

Namely, he wants more out of starters Jordan Waiwaiole and Brady Amack, who both turned in good, but not great, first years as starters last season. "Our inside linebacker play was a little inconsistent at times last year, and that produced more yardage than needed," Wallerstedt said. "We really have to focus on that stopping the run, getting to some throwing downs and go to where we’ve been the strongest — with our secondary play and their coverage and some blitzes." Waiwaiole agrees. "We were inconsistent, which is why you saw the slumps in the run game," Waiwaiole said. "We have to be steady this year." Run defense is also on the linemen's minds. "We have a great secondary, and we’ve been tough against the pass," defensive end Zach Payne said. "We’ve got to straighten up against the run. And it’s technique stuff that can change it, being in the right place at the right time. If everybody does their job, there’s nowhere to run."

Ken Lamendola and Austin Niklas have plenty of experience as backup inside linebackers, although Lamendola will likely miss the first few games of the season.

Outside, Patrick Hennessey is as old as an old-timer can be at the Academy, playing a rare ninth semester in Colorado Springs. He and Ken Lamendola watched his incoming classmates graduate. "That was probably the most depressing day of my entire life," Hennessey said. "I know (Lamendola) felt the same way." Hennessey hasn't felt hesitant playing with a recovered shoulder; he's a key contributor in mid-field. "He’s been around a lot of ball, and he’s healthy," defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt said. "That’s been great to keep him healthy. He’s one of those guys that’ll elevate guys around him. It’s good to have him back on the field."

Alex means, backed up by Jamil Cooks play the other outside spot. "He’s doing good things," Wallerstedt said. Calhoun is pleased with his consistency, "but it has to continue to grow and go to another level," the head coach said. Cooks worked with the first team defense late in August.

"The secondary could be one of the strengths of our team," Calhoun reported. His players are confident. Jon Davis: "This is my first time playing at Notre Dame, and Boise State always is among the top teams in the nation. Who doesn't like to play a ranked team?"

Senior cornerback Josh Hall had first dibs on replacing Reggie Rembert, Chris Miller playing with the twos. "Josh Hall, it wouldn’t surprise me if he had a big year," defensive coordinator Matt Wallerstedt said. Steffon Batts played himself into the starting role, however, late in August. "I came out of spring a little more focused this year, just focused on what I had to do and not trying to do too much," Batts said. Batts worked with the first team late in August.

Across from Batts and Hall, senior Anthony Wright is playing without bruised ribs, a sore Achilles' tendon, and a back injury for the first time since last season. "Junior year is behind me, we had a good season, I thought I had an OK season, but I’m focusing on senior year. I’m 100 percent and going to try to stay that way." Wright's goal for his final season: "to be the best corner in this conference. I want to be fundamentally sound, being able to lock whoever comes over to my side down," Wright said.

"We have to be better finishers this year," safety Jon Davis said. "We have enough talent back there."

Freshman cornerback Ryan Pollard has been playing with the varsity this offseason, and may see playing time.

Jon Davis is the known quantity returning at safety, having just started his 27th consecutive game, and 14th at strong safety. He won honorable mention all-Mountain West at strong safety last season, but feels like he could have had a better year.

"There were definitely some plays I should have made that I didn’t make, some interceptions I dropped and some tackles that I missed. I think I had a decent year but it could have been better."

Davis thinks he's set for improvement.

"I can roam a bit and I know exactly what I need to do. I can play a lot faster because I’m not worried about thinking all the time like I was at strong safety last year. Going to strong safety opened up my eyes to the whole defense and the concepts of the defense," Davis said.

Troy Calhoun sees the same things. "His anticipation and realizing what’s going on gives him some pluses. When he says something, he’s dead on."

Next to Davis will be Brian Lindsay, who missed half of last season with a broken collar bone. Look for Anthony Wooding in nickel packages. Freshman safety Bobby Watkins and Freshman Jordan Mays have all gotten a number of repetitions with the second- and third-team defense.

Ezra Hood blogs about all things TCU football at SBNation's Frogs O' War.