Expectations are high in Colorado Springs after Air Force claimed the Mountain West's Mountain Division title in 2015. The Falcons’ return eight out of 11 starters on defense, while the offense brings back playmakers Jalen Robinette and Jacobi Owens are back for another season. The two combined for 1,733 yards and 12 touchdowns last fall. Coach Troy Calhoun will enter his 10th year at the helm and it has the potential to be his best year to date.
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Previewing Air Force’s Offense
Jalen Robinette seems out of place in an Air Force football uniform. He’s an immensely talented receiver at a school that historically has shown little use for passing. This could be his season to dominate. He averaged nearly 25 yards per catch last season, but departed quarterback Karson Roberts struggled to find him. That should change in 2016. Nate Romine is the rare Falcon quarterback who throws better than he runs, and he returns after suffering a severe injury to his right knee. Expect Romine and Robinette to surpass for 50 connections and more than 1,000 yards, rare accomplishments at Air Force.
The Falcons, as usual, feature a deep, talented collection of ball carriers. Fullbacks D.J. Johnson and Shayne Davern are brutishly effective, and tailbacks Jacobi Owens and Timothy McVey are elusive. McVey began last season at fourth string. He ended it as a surprise star, averaging 8.5 yards per carry. The running quartet, if healthy, could push the Falcons to a national rushing title. This is a big if — Johnson has struggled with his hamstring, and Davern’s shoulders are brittle.
Watch for junior tight end Ryan Reffitt, who will burn defenses that place too much emphasis on the run. Reffitt boasts speed and sure hands. He could become a breakout star in his first season as a starter.
Line coach Clay Hendrix is an expert at replacing departed parts. Colin Sandor and Alex Norton will anchor an undersized but athletic unit.
Previewing Air Force’s Defense
End Alex Hansen will be missed; the question is, how much? Hansen often delivered a ferocious one-man pass rush, and Troy Calhoun called him the best defensive player he has coached at Air Force. End Ryan Watson has collected 6.5 career sacks as Hansen’s sidekick. Watson is quick, but at 230 pounds he is undersized even by Air Force standards. He could struggle to escape double teams.
Strong safety Weston Steelhammer offers a rare combination: He’s aggressive on inside runs, often resembling a linebacker, and superlative in coverage. His early, and questionable, bowl game ejection against Cal revealed his value. The defense collapsed after Steelhammer’s departure. Coaches are searching for another corner to play alongside Roland Lapido.
A promising season crashed at the end of 2015, largely because the defense surrendered 159 points in the final four games. Strong performances are needed from linebackers Jacob Onyechi and D.J. Dunn. Coordinator Steve Russ works with one of the smallest defenses in the college game. He needs his undersized defenders to remain healthy for the Falcons to thrive.
Previewing Air Force’s Specialists
Luke Strebel has locked up the placekicking job. He hit 10-of-11 field goals last season, including a crucial kick in the win over Boise State. Steve Brosy will struggle to retain the punting job. He’s facing a strong challenge from Cecil Moskowitz, who has the more powerful leg.
Air Force averaged 33.8 points per game last season while coping with an inconsistent passing game and injuries to fullbacks Johnson and Davern. With a healthy quartet of running backs and Romine at quarterback, the Falcons could flirt with 40 points per game. Owens and McVey could rank as the top tailback combination in the conference, and Robinette is prepared to burn any defense that concentrates too much on the run. Slowing the Falcon offense will offer a troubling challenge to any opposing defensive coordinator. The question, as usual, will be the performance of the undersized defense. If the Falcons produce a pass rush — always a challenge — this team should win 10 games, and maybe more.