2022 G5 Preview: Air Force Is (Almost) Loaded
Save for a few major defensive departures, Air Force returns a huge chunk of last year's 10-3 team and could be in for a big year.
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Since 2013, Air Force has settled into a bit of a pattern under the direction of Troy Calhoun, who is set to enter his 16th season at the helm this fall.
That 2013 season was the first real down note for Calhoun and the Falcons. After six straight bowl berths to open his tenure, Air Force collapsed in 2013 as it faced a significant rebuild, falling from 6-7 to 2-10 with losses to every league opponent, Navy, and Notre Dame. Only three of the 10 losses were within a possession. Without a capable quarterback, the option offense was inefficient and sloppy, while the defense was among the worst in college football without its usual time of possession advantage.
It was a difficult season for Air Force, but it was necessary. After winning nine games in years one and four and eight in years two and three, the Falcons had reached diminishing returns territory in 2011 and 2012. Both the offense and defense were top 40 units in 2010, but the defense dipped into the 70s nationally in 2011 and held back an improved offense, yielding just seven wins in 13 games. The offense joined the defense in the 70s in 2012, and Air Force only barely eeked out a 6-6 – including losses to both Army and Navy – season that dropped to 6-7 with a bowl loss. The roster was good enough every year to qualify for a bowl game, but the top-end talent had dipped and was starting to lower the ceiling.
So, Air Force took a year to develop young talent. Starting quarterback was suspended early on and ceded the job to youngsters Karson Roberts and Nate Romine. Neither was ready, but that foundation would be important moving forward. The Falcons found playing time offensively for young ball carriers, like D.J. Johnson and Devin Rushing while paying special attention to then-freshmen Jacobi Owens and Shayne Davern.
The defense leaned heavily on defensive lineman Alex Hansen, linebackers Conner Healy, Joey Nichol, Jordan Pierce, and Spencer Proctor, and defensive backs Christian Spears and Dexter Walker – all of whom had at least one more year of eligibility remaining. Like with Owens and Davern on the other side of the ball, it put freshman DB Weston Steelhammer on the fast track for playing time as a sophomore, too.
Calhoun made a change at defensive coordinator heading into 2014 too, tabbing Steve Russ to run the defense after he served a stint as the co-DC prior.
With the defense a year older (and operating under somewhat new management), that excellent sophomore class, and the return of 2012 starting quarterback Kale Pearson from injury, Air Force fired off its best season under Calhoun (at that point). The offense jumped into the top 50, the defense moved into the 30s and the Falcons turned 10 losses into 10 wins.
The 2015 season saw a slight step back with a lot of those defenders departing, but Roberts took over the show on offense and teamed up with Davern Johnson and Owens for a borderline top 30 scoring unit on the way to a division title and an 8-6 mark.
Romine took over in 2016, the offense got even better and the defense jumped back into the top 50, yielding another 10-win season. Then, as those super sophomores washed out of the program and Air Force again turned the keys over to younger players on both sides of the ball, it again suffered through a rut. This one spanned two years, with 5-7 campaigns in 2017 and 2018.
Those lean years provided a chance for new faces like quarterback Donald Hammond III, tailback Kadin Remsberg, fullback Taven Birdow, defensive lineman Mosese Fifita, and Jordan Jackson, linebackers Kyle Johnson and Demonte Meeks, and defensive backs Milton Bugg III, Jeremy Fejedelem, and Zane Lewis to emerge. When that group became upperclassmen in 2019, the Falcons fielded a pair of top 20 units and produced Calhoun’s best year yet, rattling off an 11-2 mark and finishing the season No. 22 in the AP Poll.
The 2020 season is almost unique enough not to mention at all, but facing a bunch of turnover as those upperclassmen departed, Air Force did as it has since 2013: worked in the new guys and took its lumps. The Falcons went 3-3, returned nearly the entire roster for 2021, and damn near claimed the Mountain division with a 10-3 overall record and a 6-2 record in the MWC. If it could have held up defensively for about one more minute against Utah State or had it not seen a fourth-down conversion negated by a penalty on a potential game-winning drive against San Diego State, Air Force wins the division.
That’s the model. To produce top-end results, Air Force suffers through a controlled burn season every other year or so, builds up a young core, and rolls once those players are older.
If we’re following that strictly, we could assume a drop-off this season. Air Force’s last three double-digit win seasons were followed by 8-5, 5-7, and 3-3. The Falcons won double-digit games last season. On top of that, they have to replace excellent defensive coordinator John Rudzinski, who accepted the same role at Virginia. For as much attention as the option offense gets, the defense had been Air Force’s strength for the last three seasons.
But the attrition this season isn’t what you’d expect. Last season, despite its success, was still a part of the upswing in the maturation of much of this roster. The big year, purely on graduating class, was going to be this one. Not 2021.
Nearly every major contributor is back for 2022 from an offense that, while not outstanding, was still damn good last season.
Chief among the group is Haaziq Daniels, who took over the reins for Hammond in 2020 and has been just about as good as Air Force could possibly hope. He suffered through the usual growing pains in 2020 but flashed an impressive arm that the Falcons relied on heavily in 2021, tasking him with 104 attempts. That’s not quite the workload that was asked of Hammond through the air, but Daniels has proven himself a very capable passer – especially down the field, which is the primary function of this passing attack. He’s a fantastic runner, too, picking up 734 yards on 154 carries last season and adding 11 touchdowns.
The Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy is often decided by the academy with the best quarterback, and Daniels is almost certainly going to claim that crown this season with Christian Anderson gone from Army and Navy entering its third year of a search to replace the production Malcolm Perry provided back in 2019. It may be rising junior Tai Lavatai’s turn to lead the service academy QBs come 2023 or 2024, but the Midshipmen signal-caller isn’t there yet.
Daniels returns nearly his entire surrounding backfield, too. Top running back Brad Roberts is back for his third season as a starter having broken through last season, rushing for 1,356 yards on 299 carries. Air Force has leaned far more on lead backs with speed than its counterparts at Army or Navy, and Roberts fits into that line of succession perfectly. Slotback DeAndre Hughes (62 carries, 510 yards, 3 TDs) offers a great complement to Roberts as a runner, be it directly from the backfield or off motion from the side.
Meanwhile, Omar Fattah and Emmanuel Michel return to handle fullback duties again. Michel flashed a surprising amount of explosive ability last season and will lead the charge at the position again this year, but Fattah still saw 49 carries to Michel’s 73 in 2021 and will fill likely a similar role this season.
Micah Davis and Dane Kinnamon round out the top skill corps lineup as hybrid wideouts and slotbacks. Davis carried 47 times for 360 yards and four scores while snaring 10 receptions for 221 yards and another pair of touchdowns, with Kinnamon adding 37 carries and 165 yards on the ground to 10 receptions for 141 yards.
The corps of true receivers takes a major hit with Brandon Lewis (21 receptions, 619 yards) departing for the professional ranks, but Davis, Kinnamon, and David Cormier – who backed up Lewis last season – should be able to fill the void. Davis is the best deep-ball tracker of the bunch and could afford to take on those responsibilities a bit more, given the depth of talent behind him with players like Hughes and youngster John Lee Eldridge III. Tight end Kyle Patterson returns from injury to pitch in as a blocker whenever needed.
As if that skill talent wasn’t enough, Air Force also returns four starters (and plenty of experience in the reserves) from one of the four finalist groups for the Joe Moore Award (which goes to the nation’s top offensive line). The 2019 offense averaged 34.1 points per game, 2016 checked in at 35.2. I don’t know if this group can topple the program high of 36.5 set in 1989 with Heisman finalist QB Dee Dowis, but it certainly has the talent to.
That might not be the requirement to sustain last season’s 10-win pace, but the offense is going to need to be very good while internally promoted DC Brian Knorr finds replacements in several key spots of the defense.
Up front, no loss is bigger than Jackson, the big-bodied tackle to racked up 11 TFL and six sacks last season. One of Elijah Brockman or Kalawai’a Pescaia should be ready to take over his spot in what probably stays a three-man front defense, but neither logged huge snaps last season. Christopher Herrera and Jayden Thiergood can provide stability at defensive end, although a dip in effectiveness against the run seems all but guaranteed without Jackson.
The linebacker room has a few players to replace, namely Meeks and Lakota Willis, but the sudden rise of OLB Vince Sanford (59 tackles, 17 TFL, 9.5 sacks) is a balm for those losses. He can lead the group, even if there are some early stumbles in replacing Meeks and Willis.
Alec Mock can fill one of the interior spots after starting last year, while TD Blackmon probably checks in to the other ILB spot, with Bo Richter and Jonathan Youngblood filling in behind him. Camby Goff is technically listed as a safety, but he worked a lot as an OLB last year, picked up 41 tackles, and can fill the role full-time this year.
Knorr will need to replace Tre Bugg in the top CB spot, and the departure of No. 2 tackler Corvan Taylor (60 tackles) from one of the safety jobs looms even larger, but there are options in both vacancies. At cornerback, last year’s No. 2, Michael Mack II, can slide into the top role with either Eian Castonguay or Zion Kelly assuming the other starting role opposite him.
Leading tackler Trey Taylor (62 tackles) is back for one of the safety spots, and Jayden Goodwin – Corvan’s top backup last season – seems as good a fit as any to fill in next to him.
This probably isn’t a top 20 defense, as it was last year, but the offense may be good enough that it doesn’t matter for almost every game this season. The only ones where Air Force likely needs both sides to be at their best are for the rivalry matchups, and on Oct. 8 when it goes to Utah State, Oct. 22 when it hosts Boise State, and for its Nov. 26 road bout with San Diego State. Take two of the three MWC games (especially if they’re the two division games), and the Falcons are probably playing one more come Dec. 3.