Team preview: Air Force
Blue Ribbon Yearbook previews the 2005 college football season, exclusively on Insider.
There's no identity crisis at Air Force.
Yes, head coach Fisher DeBerry is coming off just his third losing season since taking over the program in 1984.
Yes, the Falcons have a talented and accurate young quarterback who can actually pass as well as he can run.
And yes, Air Force plays in a conference in which almost every program is trying to emulate Utah's spread-offense success.
In spite of all those things, the folks in Colorado Springs have no plans to bury the wishbone. It will be business as usual this fall.
"Who we are is what we are. We're not going to pretend to be anybody else," said offensive coordinator Chuck Petersen, in his 16th season at Air Force. "If everyone else is running a spread, we have an advantage. They've only got two days to prepare for us. That's what has made us successful over the past 25 years."
They certainly aren't used to losing here.
Last season's 5-6 effort joins 1988 (5-7) and 1993 (4-8) as the only sub-.500 teams for DeBerry, the winningest coach in service academy history. His 22-year tenure is the third longest by any active coach in Division I-A behind Penn State's Joe Paterno and Florida State's Bobby Bowden.
Air Force did win its 21st conference rushing title in 2004, including 19 under DeBerry. The Falcons ranked fourth in the nation with a 277.4-yard average, the 19th time that they have ranked in the Top 10.
Expect more of the same in 2005, even though last year's squad completed nearly 60 percent of its passes and averaged 148.1 yards per game (highest since 2000).
Why fix something that isn't broken? DeBerry's team ranks 19th nationally since 1997 in total wins, having gone 63-34 (.650) during that span.
Air Force will be tested early and often in 2005, with no chance to ease into the conference schedule. The Falcons, 29-9 in non-conference games since 1997, open up against Washington (in Seattle). Then it's four straight Mountain West games, including road games at Utah and Colorado State.
Their games in the annual Commander-in-Chief's Trophy battle are at Navy (Oct. 8) and home against Army (Nov. 5). DeBerry is an amazing 34-8 against those two in his career and has guided the Falcons to 14 trophies, although the Midshipmen have taken the last two.
The academy expressed its faith in the beloved coach with a five-year contract extension last year to keep him on the sideline through 2009.
No controversy here. Sophomore Shaun Carney (5-10, 195) is back to pilot the triple-option offense after becoming the first freshman to start a season opener and setting a single-season record for completion percentage (61.1) in 2004. He broke the record of 58.5 percent set in 1964 by Tim Murphy.
He completed 91-of-149 passes for 1,315 yards, 11 touchdowns and six interceptions, and his quarterback efficiency rating of 151.5 would have ranked second in the nation if he had enough attempts to qualify. Carney also led the Falcons in rushing with 596 yards and six scores.
At his best on the biggest stages, he rushed for 95 yards and three touchdowns and completed nine-of-13 passes for 158 yards against Utah. He was 11-for-18 for 203 yards and rushed for 93 more in a season-ending 47-17 rout of Colorado State.
"Shaun still has a long way to go, but he certainly showed he's capable of being a solid player," DeBerry said. "He has the potential to be thought of as one of those great ones that have played here."
Petersen praised his young prodigy's poise, which was particularly evident in the "red zone." Air Force ranked second in the conference last season, scoring on 39-of-44 (88.6 percent) of its trips inside the 20, including 35 touchdowns.
"He is extremely confident. He gives us a chance to throw the football, which we haven't had in recent years," Petersen said. "He is a really good decision maker, especially for as young as he is. He's not only mentally tough, but physically tough, which you have to be to run the option."
Last year's backup, senior Adam Fitch (6-0, 190), changed positions in the spring and moved to halfback.
"This is a good move for our football team and one that Adam came to us about," DeBerry said. "This way we can get both guys on the field because they are two of our best players. I think it shows what kind of leader Adam is to want to do what is best for the team."
The No. 3 quarterback from last season, senior Andy Gray (6-2, 195), has also shifted positions to free safety. That opens a door for junior Lucas Ewing (6-0, 185) and sophomore Jim Ollis (5-11, 190) to battle for backup duties. Both played on the junior varsity last fall.
Darnell Stephens (1,537 career yards) and Anthony Butler (1,547) were two of the most successful ground-gainers in the option era at Air Force and must be replaced.
The No. 1 halfbacks on the 2005 depth chart are junior Justin Handley (5-8, 175) and sophomore Chad Smith (5-10, 185). Handley played in 11 games and rushed for 94 yards on 22 carries. Smith moved up to the varsity in midseason and gained 57 yards on 11 attempts.
Handley and Smith are multi-dimensional threats who can run routes and catch the football. Both are excellent blockers, which the halfback position demands.
Fitch showcased his moves at quarterback last year, rushing for 115 yards against Army and a career-best 135 yards against San Diego State. He scored three times in those two ballgames.
"We've done a halfback-by-committee approach for several years," Petersen said. "Adam has made a smooth transition. He's not a burner, but he's a smart kid and he has really picked up the offense at that position very well."
Junior Jacobe Kendrick (6-0, 220) appears to have a handle on the all-important fullback spot, with sophomores Ryan Williams (5-9, 210) and Scott Peeples (5-10, 220) ready to jump into the fray after playing JV ball in 2004.
"In the triple option, fullback is our first option," Petersen said. "He's the one that makes the whole thing go. Having a strong fullback makes everything better. He's got to be a big and physical back because all of his carries are between the tackles. He has to be tough and believe me, Jacobe is tough."
Kendrick rushed for 232 yards and a touchdown in a reserve role last year and has a career average of 5.2 yards per carry.
Last season's No. 1 and 2 receivers, J.P. Waller (32 catches, 476 yards and three touchdowns) and Alec Messerall (22 receptions, 265 yards and one TD), are gone.
Senior Greg Kirkwood (6-2, 205) didn't practice in the spring after undergoing shoulder surgery, but he should be a top downfield target for Carney this fall. He averaged 21.7 yards per catch in 2004, including a 26-yard touchdown against BYU.
Senior Jason Brown (6-4, 220) started three games and ranked fifth on the team with nine catches for 164 yards, including a 45-yard touchdown against Wyoming.
Junior Victor Thompson (6-0, 190) skyrocketed up the depth chart with a strong spring practice session.
"We normally play three kids at that position in a game and we've got really good balance this year," Petersen said. "Greg is a burner and can really stretch a defense. He and Victor will be our main speed guys, while Jason is a big guy who can really go up and get the ball."
Senior Robert McMenomy (6-4, 235) is a returning starter at tight end. In 2004, he scored a 10-yard touchdown against Cal and averaged 16.2 yards per reception.
"Rob had a great spring and can potentially be a big-time player for us," Petersen said. "The tight end in this offense has to be a great blocker -- sort of like a wide tackle -- and has to be versatile enough to help us in the passing game. Rob does it all."
Last season, Air Force ranked second in the conference in scoring at 29.6 points per game and total offense with 425.5 yards per contest, trailing unbeaten Utah in both categories. The Falcons also yielded the fewest sacks in the Mountain West with just 14 in 11 games.
All of those stats could improve in 2005 if DeBerry's offensive line proves to be as good as he believes. All five starters return, including senior center Jon Wilson (6-4, 300), the team's only all-conference selection in 2004.
"I think Jon is as fine an offensive lineman as we've had here," DeBerry said. "He will lead as good a group of offensive linemen as we've had here in a long time. I'm very excited about where we are with the offensive line."
Wilson led the Falcons in knockdown blocks with 173 last season, hitting double figures in nine of his 10 games.
"Jon is a great leader. He's a guy that rallies not only our offensive line, but our whole offense," Petersen said. "That position is critical for us and he fills it very nicely."
Returning starters at tackle are junior Robert Kraay (6-8, 285) and senior Ross Weaver (6-7, 295), and back at guard are sophomore Caleb Morris (6-2, 275) and senior Pat Edwards (6-2, 260).
Kraay and Weaver both started every game last season and are extremely athletic and surprisingly mobile for their size.
Morris and Edwards both missed the spring with injuries and are expected to be at full strength this fall. Last year, Morris became the first freshman to start on the offensive line for the Falcons in the DeBerry era and averaged 12 knockdown blocks per game. Edwards was credited with 114 knockdowns.
Stepping in at the guard spots in the spring were seniors Curtis Grantham (6-2, 270) and Larry Hufford (6-1, 280). Grantham was a starter last year but broke his leg on the fourth play of the season against California and missed the rest of the year. Hufford made five starts at center before moving to guard.
Also in the mix are senior Bob Scott (6-3, 255); juniors Donald Whitt (6-5, 290), Thomas Crump (6-2, 275), Stuart Perlow (6-4, 280), Tyler Dohallow (6-3, 275), Eric Brown (6-2, 275) and Brett Agatep (6-3, 245); and sophomores Ryan Zeman (6-4, 250) and Blaine Guenther (6-2, 255).
As the only kicker on the roster with varsity experience, senior Scott Eberle (6-1, 200) enters the season with the inside track for the starting job. He was a reserve behind Michael Greenaway in 2004 and was a perfect 6-for-6 on extra points, but he never got the chance to attempt a field goal.
If Eberle falters, DeBerry can turn to juniors Brendan Greenaway (6-3, 200) and Robert O'Dea (5-8, 180).
The Falcons ranked seventh in the Mountain West in scoring defense (31.1 points per game) and eighth in total defense (422.1 yards per game). Lighting up the scoreboard were California (56 points), Utah (49), Wyoming (43) and BYU (41).
DeBerry hopes having an extra year of experience will help put the brakes on Air Force's opponents in 2005.
"I think our defense is going to be considerably better this season," he said. "I like what we're doing with the defense and I think we have a lot of guys that can help us."
Replacing Ryan Carter, who led the Falcons with six sacks last year, at defensive end is junior Gilberto Perez (6-3, 275), who made one start at nose guard last year. He had 39 tackles, including four behind the line, and one sack. He had two pass breakups, forced one fumble and recovered another.
His bookend on the front three is senior Nelson Mitchell (6-1, 260), who played in nine games and tallied 18 tackles and a blocked extra point. Senior nose guard Russ Mitscherling (6-3, 285) is a returning starter and arguably the most consistent member of the trio. He had 36 tackles in 2004.
Mitscherling and offensive linemen Wilson and Weaver were elected captains by their teammates at the conclusion of spring drills.
Depth at defensive end comes from senior Erik Anderson (6-8, 280), junior Kevin Quinn (6-1, 235) and sophomores Josh Clayton (6-4, 250) and Brandon Krupa (6-2, 225). Junior Grant Thomas (6-1, 275) and sophomore Eric Nelson (6-4, 285) back up Mitscherling in the middle.
"Up front, I wouldn't want to swap our guys for anyone else in the league," DeBerry said. "They are a talented group and I think they'll make big plays for us."
Replacing starting linebackers John Rudzinski, Cameron Hodge and Kenny Smith was a tall order for veteran defensive coordinator Richard Bell's staff. The trio combined for 138 tackles, three sacks and three forced fumbles last fall.
Sophomore Marcus Brown (6-2, 240) is an emerging star and one of the most talked-about linebackers at the academy in years. He collected 34 tackles and one sack in part-time action as a freshman, including nine stops against Wyoming.
Brown won Air Force's "Every Day, Every Play" award during the spring.
"Marcus was mentioned every day by our coaches as someone that gave it his all every play in practice," DeBerry said. "This is a guy the coaching staff can count on 365 days a year to give his all."
The other projected starters, seniors Overton Spence (6-2, 240) and Andrew Braley (6-2, 215), both sat out the spring with injuries. Braley started against UNLV and Utah and finished with 20 tackles and two sacks. Spence started versus Navy, BYU and Army and collected 26 tackles and a sack.
Junior Jared Baxley (6-0, 195) took advantage of their absence and opened some eyes with his energy and enthusiasm.
Baxley, who moved from the Falcon position, received the Woody Award during the spring as the player who came out of the woodwork to make an unexpected impact.
"We feel this player is one that will make a significant contribution to the team in the fall, based on his effort every day in spring practice," DeBerry said.
Air Force's deep pool of talent at linebacker includes junior Rick Ricciardi (6-1, 235) and six sophomores: John Rabold (6-3, 220), Austin Randle (6-0, 225), Aaron Shanor (6-1, 225), Austin Dowling (6-0, 235), Drew Fowler (6-2, 228) and Adam Geib (6-4, 230).
Plenty of experience returns in the five-man secondary, led by two-year starter Denny Poland (6-3, 225) at left Falcon. The senior didn't practice in the spring because of a knee injury, but his two-year totals -- 116 tackles, four sacks, three interception -- speak for themselves and ensure his spot on the gridiron.
Senior John Taibi (6-2, 205) made six starts a year ago at right Falcon, racking up 34 tackles (17 solos), one interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
He has plenty of competition in senior Mark Carlson (6-0, 190), who is making a transition from free safety after pacing the team with 73 tackles last year. He also had two tackles for loss, two pass breakups and two fumble recoveries.
Reserve Falcon backs include juniors Grant Scholl (6-1, 200), Adam Zanotti (5-11, 200) and Beau Suder (5-11, 190) and sophomores Nick Carnovale (5-11, 205) and Charles Wells (5-10, 200).
Starters at cornerback are junior Chris Sutton (6-0, 180) and sophomore Carson Bird (5-11, 185). Sutton was fourth on the team with 65 tackles and tied for the team lead with two interceptions -- one against Army and one against Navy. Bird added 13 tackles.
Vying for playing time on the corners are juniors Chris Huckins (5-10, 175) and Jonathan Lattimore (5-10, 180) and speedy sophomores Nathan Smith (5-11, 175) and Ty Paffett (5-11, 180).
Sophomore Bobby Giannini (6-2, 210) has all-conference potential at free safety. As a freshman, he ranked third on the team in tackles with 67 and had an interception.
His biggest play of the year came against New Mexico when he made a SportsCenter-caliber mid-air stop of all-conference back DonTrell Moore at the goal line on fourth down, helping to preserve a 28-23 victory.
Giannini faces renewed competition in the fall from sophomore Julian Madrid (6-0, 200), who appeared in every game and recorded 33 tackles.
Senior Donny Heaton (6-2, 195) averaged 41.3 yards per punt in 2004 and set an Air Force and Mountain West record with a 90-yard missile against Utah. He dropped seven punts inside the 20-yard line, but he also had five blocked. The team's net punting average was a woeful 30.8 yards per kick, 113th in the nation.
"Donny is as good a punter as there is in this league," DeBerry said. "We didn't do a good job of helping him last year with our snapping. We must improve on that this year and I think we have some guys that can get the job done."
Junior Bryan Jones (6-1, 235) has experience at deep snapper and will fight for a starting job with sophomores Tony Norman (5-11, 195) and Joshua Jones (6-0, 215). Backing up Heaton are juniors Christopher Carp (5-9, 160) and Jeff Furnary (5-11, 175).
After a rare letdown in 2004, the special teams unit became a primary focus for DeBerry in the off-season.
"Our special teams were not special last year," he said. "We need to get back to where we are blocking kicks and creating big plays in the kicking game."
Special teams coordinator Tom Miller will no longer coach the Falcon backs, too, instead devoting his attention solely on getting this group back in shape.
Air Force blocked two kicks in 2004, snapping a streak of 14 consecutive seasons with at least three (including a school-record 11 in 1997). The Falcons' 89 blocked kicks since 1990 are second only to Virginia Tech in Division I-A.
Opponents averaged 17.7 yards per kickoff return and a whopping 13.5 yards per punt return against the Falcons last season.
The top return specialists are Sutton, who averaged 7.0 yards per punt return, and Handley, who registered 20.5 yards per kickoff return.
For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2005 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).