by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Part of everyday life for the cadets at the Air Force Academy is learning with stressful situations that could occur in future military careers. Piloting a F-16 Fighting Falcon is no job for the faint of heart.

Still, the Academy was dealing with a different kind of stress in late June, as the raging Colorado wildfires forced evacuations of portions of the Academy grounds as well as large swaths of adjacent Colorado Springs, where thousands were displaced as flames roared into town from the south slopes of the Rockies.

Not only were hundreds of homes destroyed, but the fire blackened about 50 acres along the southwest boundary of the Air Force campus. Fort Carson, an Army infantry post about 15 miles away, sent 120 soldiers along with bulldozers and other heavy equipment to help clear a line to stop the fire from spreading into the Academy grounds.

The blaze also forced evacuations on campus, as about 200 cadets in summer academic programs were moved to nearby University of Colorado-Colorado Springs, and 350 others in airmanship and other training programs were released to local sponsor families. The cadet area on the campus seemed to escape most of the menace, but the summer arrival of 1000 new cadets from the incoming class was subject to disruption.

After dealing with raging mountain wildfires and evacuations, what’s the big deal about replacing 16 starters on the Falcon football team?

Such is life at Air Force, which has been coping with a variety of hurdles on the athletic fields ever since the Academy opened with great fanfare in the 1950s. Indeed, it has hardly been a ho-hum offseason at Air Force, not only with the wildfire threat, but also the involved chatter regarding the Falcons perhaps relocating their football program into the Big East (along with other Mountain West defectors Boise State and San Diego State) while shifting the rest of their sports operations into the Missouri Valley. There were also discussions with the Big XII about potential membership.

In the end, however, Falcon AD Hans Mueh announced that Air Force would not be going anywhere (except, perhaps, evacuating campus at the advancing wildfire threat). Air Force’s re-commitment to the Mountain West was met with a sigh of relief by conference commissioner Craig Thompson and league officials at their Colorado Springs headquarters, which also had a close call in avoiding the late June wildfires.

But the Falcons are used to making the best of their unique situation. Indeed, we’re not sure there has ever been a more dramatic debut for a college football program than Air Force’s in the late ‘50s, when the Falcons became a national power in short order.

Service Academy football was undergoing a bit of a revival in the ‘50s with the return of one-platoon football, and the introduction of a new option other than West Point or Annapolis for interested recruits proved an early boon to the Falcon program. The glamour jobs in the military were those of pilots, and the gung-ho sorts who dreamed about flying were immediately attracted to the modern, fancy Academy at the foot of the Rockies in Colorado Springs, which remains one of the most breathtaking academic settings in the nation (with or without accompanying wildfires).

Hard as it is to believe, within three years of beginning a varsity football program, and in their first campaign as a top-level competitor, the Falcons had progressed to the Cotton Bowl and a number six rating in the final polls after recording a 9-0-1 regular-season mark in 1958 for progressive HC Ben Martin (left), he of the distinctive fedora and whose wide-open offense hummed behind QB Rich Mayo. Martin’s teams stayed competitive throughout the ‘60s, humiliating some high-profile foes including UCLA, which was thrashed on several occasions by the upstart Falcons. Martin’s 1963 team reached the Gator Bowl, but some of his best squads of the ‘60s came at the end of the decade and into a glorious 1970 campaign in which the Force advanced as high as number seven in the national rankings and dumped Jim Plunkett’s eventual Rose Bowl-winning Stanford side in a mid-November duel at a frozen Falcon Stadium, 31-14.

The Force’s quick-strike, deception-laden “Winking I” offense soared in 1970 behind prolific QB Bob Parker (whose 2789 passing yards and 21 TD tosses that season are unlikely to ever be challenged in the Falcon record book) and homerun wideout Ernie Jennings, who caught nearly 1300 yards worth of passes. Meanwhile, physical, punishing RB Brian “The Muscle” Bream exploded for another 1276 rush yards as Air Force qualified for its second-ever New Year’s Day bowl, losing in the Sugar to Bill Battle’s one-loss Tennessee. Still, the Force finished 16th-ranked in the country in a wondrous and fun campaign.

By the middle of the ‘70s, however, with the allure of the modern, fancy Academy having been dulled by unpopular Vietnam conflict, Air Force football began a descent into mediocrity, resulting in HC Martin’s departure after a fourth-consecutive losing mark in 1977. Taking over for one brief period in time was none other than a young Bill Parcells, who had been an accomplished defensive coach at the college level over the previous decade at Texas Tech, Florida State, Vanderbilt, and Army, where he had coordinated stop units for some of Tom Cahill’s best West Point teams in the late ‘60s. Parcells, however, proved no immediate elixir, finishing his lone season in charge at 3-8, with a highlight (lowlight?) of permitting Georgia Tech RB Eddie Lee Ivery to set an then-NCAA single-game rush record of 356 yards on a cold and snowy November day in which the wind chill was zero degrees and the field had to be cleared multiple times by snow plows. Amazingly, Ivery found the conditions to be quite inviting, scoring on TD runs of 73, 80, and 50 yards in the Yellow Jackets’ 42-21 romp.

Parcells’ stay in Colorado Springs was brief, hired as the defensive coordinator by first-year New York Giants HC Ray Perkins for the following 1979 season, to be replaced at the Force by Kenny Hatfield, a former DB for some of Frank Broyles’ great Arkansas teams in the early ‘60s when teammates included Jimmy Johnson and Jerry Jones. After spending a decade on Doug Dickey’s staffs at Tennessee and Florida, Hatfield jumped at the chance to revive the Falcon program.

It took a couple of years, but Hatfield provided the template for which Academy football could re-emerge by introducing the option as the base offense. In retrospect, this was a stroke of genius on the part of Hatfield, as the triple-option had become almost passe in late ‘70s as most college attacks morphed into NFL-style looks. But Hatfield correctly believed that the option provided the best fit for the smaller (and hopefully quicker) linemen that Air Force was limited to recruit, while also reckoning that it would be a tricky change of pace for opposing defenses not used to defending that sort of formation in the rest of their games. Hatfield installed the option full-time in 1981, and by 1982, the Falcons were good enough to spank Notre Dame and qualify for their first bowl in 12 years, when, behind option magician QB Marty Louthan, the Falcs beat Vanderbilt, 36-28, in an entertaining Hall of Fame Bowl in Birmingham (Hatfield gets a victory ride after that game at upper left). With Louthan at the controls once more in 1983, the Falcs again beat Notre Dame (for the first-ever time at South Bend) and went “bowling” for the second straight year, beating Ole Miss in the Independence Bowl.

Hatfield was thus lured back to alma mater Arkansas, and o.c. Fisher DeBerry, another option devotee, was promoted to the top spot in 1984. The Falcons continued to maintain their new-found elevation under DeBerry, with numerous bowl teams and ranked sides, including a special team in 1985 that finished 12-1 and ranked 8th in the final polls.

The Air Force recipe has remain basically unchanged since ex-flyboy Troy Calhoun (right), with experience as an NFL assistant, succeeded the retiring DeBerry in 2007. Calhoun, adding a few new wrinkles to the attack, has kept the Falcons relevant and into bowl games in each of his five years in charge while spurning occasional offers from interested suitors (Calhoun was reportedly the number one target at Tennessee before turning down the Vol job following Lane Kiffin’s departure to Southern Cal in January of 2010).

The challenge awaiting Calhoun this fall, however, might be the most-demanding of his tenure. Although the Falcons are used to adjusting and reloading their personnel on an annual basis, the task confronting Calhoun and staff in 2012 is unique even by Falcon standards, with that whopping number of 16 starters needing to be replaced from last year’s side that advanced to the D.C. Military Bowl, where it lost a 42-41 thriller vs. Toledo.

Since Hatfield first installed the option in 1981, the Falcs have been a top ten rushing team in all but one of the past 31 seasons. Despite the rebuilding, expect that trend to continue in 2012 thanks in large part to the presence of sr. QB Connor Dietz (left), who was beneficiary of a rare redshirt year (in Dietz’ case due to a previous injury in 2008) at the Academy. Dietz is not green, having experience as the backup for the graduated Tim Jefferson, with Dietz even called upon to start a handful of games since 2009 when Jefferson went down.

Although an accomplished option ballhandler and gritty runner with 674 career rush yards to his credit, Dietz is not nearly as accomplished a passer as the graduated Jefferson, who could loosen opposing defenses with his ability to throw downfield. Jefferson, arguably the best passing Air Force QB since Bob Parker in 1970, threw for a whopping (for the Falcs) 1637 yards and 14 TDs a year ago. Even Dietz’ most-vocal supporters, including Calhoun, acknowledge that the Jefferson aerial dimension was unique and unlikely to be replicated anytime soon at the Force.

So, expect the Falcs do business as usual on the ground with Dietz, rugged FB Mike DeWitt (right; 567 YR in 2011) and Wes Cobb, last year’s staring FB who moved to a TB spot in spring to replace 4-year starter Asher Clark (who, unfortunately, ran into some disciplinary problems and was booted from the academy just before his expected spring graduation).

Two starters (srs. LT Jason Kons and LG Jordan Eason) return along the OL, but it has been standard operating procedure for decades at the Force for new linemen to step into the breach, and Calhoun and o.c. Mike Thiessen (a former Falc QB) expect the new starts (all upperclassmen with backup experience) to effectively step into the breach. They’re not as sure about the receiving targets who became valued components when Jefferson was at QB; last year’s starters Zach Kauth and big-play Jonathan Warzeka (62 receptions and 9 TD catches between them in 2011) have graduated. Expected senior replacements Mikel Hunter and Ty McArthur have deep-threat speed, but they’re tiny targets (both 5'9 and only 170 lbs.), and downfield blocking, a must for AFA wideouts, could suffer.

Speaking of suffering, that’s exactly what the Falc defense did last season, especially vs. the run where the Force ranked a poor 109th nationally and was gouged repeatedly when permitting almost 220 ypg and 5 yards per carry. Hoping to address those issues, new d.c. Charlton Warren (promoted from DB coach after predecessor Matt Wallerstedt took a job at Texas A&M) is stressing a more attack-minded scheme, although the platoon is even more undersized than usual (no starter weighing more than 255-lb. DE Nick Fitzgerald). And, like the offense, the “D” only returns three starters as well.

A key for Warren’s 3-4 defensive looks will be to cause more havoc and force more turnovers as some accomplished Falc stop units did in recent years, which didn’t happen enough in 2011 when AFA forced 26 giveaways, down from totals that ranked among the nation’s leaders in that category (and TO margin) in some recent years. Again, forcing more turnovers is easier said than done.

Look for Warren to stress more press coverage and blitzing featuring a pair of athletic jr. outside LBs, Alex Means (one of the three returning starters) and Jamil Cooks. A couple of frosh, Reggie Barnes and Glynn Cheeks, are expected to compete for minutes at LB, where their quicks could come in handy in the new aggressive schemes.

All of that expected blitzing, however, could put the secondary at real risk, and departed CB Anthony Wright and safety Jon Davis were two of the most-valued components on last year’s stop unit. Look for lanky jr. FS Anthony Wooding, Jr. to perhaps emerge as a key playmaker, but new CBs Chris Miller and Steffon Batts figure to be tested. Don’t be fooled by the Falcs’ high pass defense ranking (6th) from last season, either, as most foes simply ran the ball down Air Force’s throat and eschewed the pass a year ago.

The special teams will miss the unique return threat provided by the explosive, yet graduated, Warzeka. At least sr. PK Parker Harrington is back in the fold after converting 15 of 18 FG tries a year ago.

The schedule, aside from an early trip to Michigan, isn’t overly-daunting this season, and the Falcs miss Mountain West favorite Boise in what appears to be the Broncos’ last appearance in the league. Indeed, if the Force gets bowl-eligible again, the soft Mountain West will likely provide a lot of help. The Falcs are also looking to hold onto the Commander-in-Chief Trophy for a third straight year, with a recent reversal of fortunes vs. Navy allowing the trophy to live in Colorado Springs the past two years.

Spread-wise, the Falcs have flattened out overall vs. the number since Calhoun’s first couple of teams caught the oddsmakers by surprise, especially at Colorado Springs, where the Force has covered just 2 of its last 11 on the board entering 2012. But Calhoun’s teams remain worth a look as an underdog, a role in which they’ve covered the number 63% of the time the past five seasons.

Summary...Even by Air Force standards, this looks to be a serious rebuilding situation HC Troy Calhoun has on his hands this fall. The defense, in particular, has been weakening in recent seasons, and evidence of upgrades with eight new starters, a new coordinator, and new scheme remained elusive through spring work. Still, the time-tested Air Force formula, the presence of an experienced option pilot in Dietz, and a very modest Mountain West schedule provide opportunities for the Falcs to make their sixth bowl visit in as many years for Calhoun. It might not be a vintage edition for the Force, but things probably won’t look too different from usual this fall at Falcon Stadium.


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