Is it a coincidence that the United States Air Force Academy is the best passing service academy? It probably is, but I like to think that it isn’t. Troy Calhoun’s team had a stunning turnaround last season en route to ten wins. Replicating ten wins may be difficult, but this team should be competitive and a bowl game is more than likely.
Kale Pearson proved a more than competent passer for this Air Force offense last year, so hopefully he passed on a few tips to his successor Nate Romine. Pearson threw 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions last year.
Romine should have an at least reasonably solid line in front of him. Matt Rochell and Andrew Ruechel are experienced tackles and in the upper-half of the division’s tackle ranks. The interior line is not nearly as experienced, but hopefully under the direction of Rochell and Ruechel they can be up to scratch.
All of the skill positions should be strengths for this offense. Four running backs return that averaged four yards per carry in 2014. Jacobi Owens went for over 1,000 yards last year, and the fullbacks D.J. Johnson and Shayne Davern rushed for 8 touchdowns apiece.
Once again, the service academies aren’t known for passing but that doesn’t mean that returning your top five receivers from a season ago isn’t a positive. Including Owens, that’s exactly what Air Force is doing. WRs Jalen Robinette and Garrett Ludowig both had over 500 yards receiving last year, and Garrett Griffin proved a reasonable safety valve at tight end catching around 60% of his targets.
The depth on defense isn’t nearly as good as the offense, but this offense does have one big thing to help out their lack of depth. Each unit on this defense has at least one clear-cut star that can lead by example.
Weston Steelhammer is the star of the secondary, and potentially the whole defense. Steelhammer had over 50 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and 6 interceptions at safety last year. With him at the back end of the defense, Air Force should be able to limit big plays from opponents and create a few for themselves.
Alex Hansen was the leading tackler on the defensive line last season. Hansen also led the line in tackles for loss, with ten, and pass break-ups, with three. He finished a mere second in sacks with 3.5, but that was still tops of any returning lineman. Hansen needs to be a star in 2015 too as the leader of a thin, both physically and from a depth standpoint, defensive line group.
Finding a star at linebacker is a little bit more difficult than the other two units considering that Jordan Pierce and Spencer Proctor were by far the most productive linebackers in terms of tackles for loss and sacks, and Pierce led the whole team in tackles. Connor Healy stands out though, and if he can take another step forward this year then he will be one of the top players on this defense. Healy was second on the team last year in tackles and did manage to record 5.5 tackles for loss and three sacks.
A minor step back seems almost inevitable after swinging from double digit losses to double digit wins in one season, but an 8-4 record should still be reason to celebrate for this Falcon squad. I actually think this team would be good enough to win the West division if they were in it. They certainly were last year. Unfortunately, they are stuck in the Mountain division with juggernaut Boise State. It also hurts that they have to go to Boise this year, and a non-conference trip to East Lansing to take on Michigan State will make reaching ten wins again difficult.
Credit Cover Photo to Mike Groll/Associated Press