Air Force won 10 games for the second time in three seasons in 2016 but is tasked with replacing a ton of experience. Head coach Troy Calhoun appears to have the perfect quarterback to run his option-based offense, but the Falcons will need to come up with a semblance of a passing attack to keep defenses honest. And that side of the ball is where the biggest question marks are for this team with just one returning starter. The schedule doesn’t do Air Force any favors either, but the offense should be able to carry the Falcons to at least six wins.
Previewing Air Force Football’s Offense for 2017
Quarterback Arion Worthman revived Air Force’s sagging 2016 season, leading the Falcons to six straight wins while dominating the offense. In the Troy Calhoun era, which started in 2007, no QB had ever averaged more than 15 carries until Worthman’s arrival. It instantly became obvious that Worthman enjoyed calling his own number. In his first 28 snaps as No. 1 quarterback, he carried the ball 19 times, and he averaged 22 carries per start.
He could become Air Force’s version of Keenan Reynolds, Navy’s dominating quarterback. He also could get injured from all those carries. Under Worthman, the offense averaged only 7.6 passes per game. For the attack to thrive, Worthman must improve in the pocket. He excelled as a runner but often failed to see wide-open receivers. Backup Nate Romine, a fifth-year senior, remains the team’s best passer.
Jalen Robinette left a huge hole. He was a rarity in service academy football: an elite receiver. He accounted for more than half of the team’s catches and receiving yards, and was the only wide receiver to catch a touchdown pass. Junior Jake Matkovich is the leading candidate to replace him. Tight end Ryan Reffitt doubles as a solid receiver and vicious blocker.
Tailback Tim McVey, who averaged 8.5 yards per carry, has been spectacular at times. He could team with Worthman to give the Falcons a devastating rushing attack. Center Alex Norton and right tackle James Rast anchor an offensive line that suffered the costly loss of coach Clay Hendrix, who departed to become head coach at Furman.
Previewing Air Force Football’s Defense for 2017
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Coordinator Steve Russ will seek to renovate a depleted and young unit. He lost 12 of his top 13 tacklers and returns only one defender who saw significant playing time, linebacker Grant Ross.
Nose guard Mosese Fifita could become the program’s first 300-pounder, although Calhoun wants him to play closer to 290. Fifita, stout and aggressive, will be especially valuable when the Falcons tangle with Navy’s and Army’s option attacks.
Defensive end Santo Coppola played superbly in the spring and will be the team’s top pass rusher. The Falcons badly need an increased pass rush. Last season, opposing quarterbacks could leisurely survey the field.
R.J. Jackson was on his way to becoming a top linebacker but suffered an ACL injury. His recovery will be crucial to the health of the defense.
The secondary must recover from the graduation of Weston Steelhammer, one of the top hitters in program history. Cornerback Marquis Griffin and safety Kyle Floyd lead an inexperienced collection of defensive backs.
Previewing Air Force Football’s Specialists for 2017
Luke Strebel delivered a consistent season as placekicker. He’s the leading candidate to start as punter, too. McVey is a superb kickoff returner who runs with power and speed. He broke a return for a TD last season.
Air Force averaged 38.6 points in Worthman’s five starts last season. That lofty number might be required again, especially in the early weeks of the season while a youthful defense matures.
The offense should be powerful, and the experienced presence of Romine at backup quarterback means the team will not collapse if Worthman suffers an injury. McVey could soar past 1,500 yards this season and become the program’s best running back since Chad Hall earned Heisman Trophy votes in 2007.
The team will be tested early, with trips to Michigan, New Mexico and Navy in the first five weeks of the season. Another 10-win finish is unlikely, but Worthman and McVey should carry the Falcons to at least six wins and the 10th bowl game in Calhoun’s 11 seasons at the academy.
National Ranking: 77
MW Mountain Prediction: 4
(Tim McVey photo courtesy of USAF Athletic Communications)