Air Force soared to a somewhat surprising 10 wins last season, including a victory over Western Michigan in the Idaho Potato Bowl. Winning is nothing new for the Falcons under Troy Calhoun, and the offense should once again be productive thanks to one of the nation's top rushing attacks. The key to this season, however, is the other side of the ball, where just four starters return from a defense that was among the best in the Mountain West in 2014.
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Previewing Air Force’s Offense for 2015
For the first time since 2012, there’s no drama at quarterback. Nate Romine spent almost all of 2014 as a spectator after starting in 2013, but he delivered a huge splash in his one meaningful appearance, leading the Falcons to victory over nationally ranked Colorado State. Romine is the rare Falcons quarterback who’s a better passer than runner, but he understands how to operate the complex triple-option, run-first attack.
The Falcons are deep at fullback with D.J. Johnson and Shayne Davern, both big, brutish and surprisingly elusive. Runs up the middle will be common, and coaches are trying to find ways to place both fullbacks on the field.
Jacobi Owens broke the 1,000-yard mark before suffering a season-ending injury to his right foot, but he often showed an unfortunate knack for turning an 8-yard gain into a 5-yard gain. He needs to show more imagination and daring this season. Owens will lead a deep, if underwhelming, set of tailbacks.
Romine’s set of receivers is so athletic it creates confusion. Why did wide receivers Jalen Robinette, Garrett Brown and tight end Garrett Griffin choose to play at Run University? Robinette, a high school quarterback, averaged 19 yards per catch last season while still learning his position. He’s a dominating blocker and could become the Mountain West’s most dangerous receiver.
The line was depleted by graduation, but expect superb and consistent blocking. Line coach Clay Hendrix is one of the nation’s top assistants, and he’s an expert at replacing lost parts. Tackle Matt Rochell and guard Andrew Ruechel will anchor the line.
Related: Athlon's 2015 College Football Rankings: No. 1 to 128
Previewing Air Force’s Defense for 2015
The Falcons vaulted from two wins in 2013 to 10 wins in 2014 largely because of hustling, surprisingly violent defenders. Air Force allowed 40 points per game in 2013 but cut the number to 24.2 in 2014. Seven starters are gone, including linebacker Jordan Pierce, a clutch, big-hit specialist.
Alex Hansen is an undersized yet ferocious defensive end who plays with the same wisdom and fire as Ben Garland, the former cadet who now plays for the Denver Broncos. Hansen will need all his experience to escape constant double teams.
The Healy brothers, Patrick and Connor, lead a depleted group of linebackers. Dexter Walker, a converted defensive back, will play outside linebacker at just over 200 pounds. He personifies the team’s profile. The Falcons are always undersized.
Strong safety Weston Steelhammer is fast, a ballhawk and capable of knockout hits, but he’s surrounded by question marks. The suspension of cornerback Gavin McHenry is a severe blow. He is expected to miss at least half the season.
Previewing Air Force’s Specialists for 2015
Placekicking was a catastrophe in spring practice. Drew Oehrle is the leading candidate to replace Will Conant, one of the nation’s most accurate kickers, but a freshman could emerge as the starter. Brett Dunn leads the field of punters.
The Falcons averaged 31.5 points per game in 2014. That number could jump to near 40 this season. The fullbacks and receivers are at historical strength, and if opposing defensive coordinators stack against the run, Romine owns the arm power and accuracy to torch defensive backs.
But can the defense keep opposing offenses in check? The Falcons win, and win big, when their undersized defenders consistently keep opponents under 25 points per game.
Expect the Falcons to rush to a winning record, which would be the seventh in nine seasons under coach Troy Calhoun, but the youthful defense must quickly jell for the Falcons to again flirt with 10 wins.