by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

How, we must ask, does Air Force keep doing it?

We’re talking not only about the Falcons’ consistency in performance, but their knack of hiring exactly the right coach for their system. Plenty of major football factories around the country continue to search for the right fit, but in Colorado Springs, that never seems to be much of a worry. Over the past 32 years, or since none other than Bill Parcells left the Academy for the NFL ranks after just one season in charge, Kenny Hatfield has begat Fisher DeBerry, who begat Troy Calhoun. And after experiencing unprecedented extended successes under Hatfield and DeBerry, it looks as if the Academy might have made even a better hire in the shrewd Calhoun, once a flyboy himself when playing QB for some typically overachieving DeBerry teams in the mid ‘80s. Now four years into his head coaching career in the Rockies, Calhoun’s 34-18 mark and four straight bowl appearances have made him a popular name to fill a variety of high-profile openings around the country. So far, Calhoun has resisted the temptation to bolt, although mountain area sources report he was listening very intently when Tennessee made a major attempt to lure him from the Springs following Lane Kiffin’s departure to Southern Cal in January of 2010. Rest assured more deep-pocketed suitors will be lining up for his services in the near future; stay tuned for further developments.

Calhoun’s formula has not been much different than the ones perfected by predecessors Hatfield and DeBerry, specifically a patented spread option attack that has been a trademark of all Force teams for the past 30+ years. Calhoun, however, has been able to add a few tweaks to offensive package, learning some of those from his several seasons at the side of the tactically-astute Jim Grobe, whom Calhoun followed from DeBerry’s Falcon staff in the mid ‘90s to Ohio U and then Wake Forest. Calhoun’s well-developed apprenticeship continued in the NFL, where he wore a variety of hats for Mike Shanahan’s Denver Broncos between 2003-05 before following Gary Kubiak to the Houston Texans, where Calhoun served as offensive coordinator in 2006. With such credentials, it is little surprise that Air Force didn’t skip a beat when Calhiun succeeded his mentor DeBerry in 2007. Indeed, Calhoun has reinvigorated a Falcon program that seemed to be growing a bit stale in the middle of the last decade under ‘ol Fisher, who missed bowl games in his last four seasons in charge between 2003-06. Since then, however, Calhoun has qualified for the postseason with room to spare in each of his four years at AFA (a record for the Falcons), while winning bowl games vs. Houston and Georgia Tech the past two seasons. Moreover, he finally returned the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy to Colorado Springs in 2010 after Navy had kept possession of it for the previous seven years.

There’s no reason to expect any dropoff from Calhoun’s upcoming edition, either. Some of the normal reloading (standard operating procedure at service academies) must take place on the offensive side where only five full-time starters are back from 2010, but key elements of what was Calhoun’s most-potent attack return. Specifically, sr. QB Tim Jefferson, who took his game up a notch a year ago when pacing an attack that ran better (5.3 ypc vs. 4.5 ypc), passed better (146 ypg vs. 127 ypg), and gained more yards per play (6.0 vs. 5.0) than it did in 2009. The downfield passing game, though not a staple of the option, improved enough last season that opponents had to pay attention, with a more-confident Jefferson doubling his TD pass total (from 5 to 10) over 2009. Jefferson also rushed for 794 yards and 15 TDs, which in combo with clever RB Asher Clark (1031 YR & 5.7 ypc) kept the infantry humming as usual. Replacing two starters along a well-coordinated OL didn’t appear to be a concern in spring, although Calhoun and co-o.c.’s Mike Thiessen and Beau Morgan (both also former Force QBs) are looking for reinforcements at the all-important FB spot, where the effective Jared Tew and Nathan Walker have both graduated. It is hoped that a combo of jrs. Wesley Cobb (smaller at 190 lbs., but able to hit the hole quickly) and 215-lb. Mike DeWitt (more of a slammer) can fill the gap adequately. The top three receivers also graduated, including homerun threat Jon Warzeka, who doubled as a dangerous kick returner and averaged almost 23 yards on his catches last season. Long-striding sr. Zack Kauth, a Plaxico Burress-sized target at 6'4, could step into the featured coast-to-coast receiver role.

It is also hoped that keeping the defense a bit healthier will help improve upon the stop unit numbers that slipped somewhat a year ago from what was one of the nation’s most-dynamic platoons in 2009. Those physical maladies and the departure of respected d.c. Tim DeRuyter to Texas A&M might also have had something to do with the “D” posting worse numbers against the run (4.8 ypc vs. 3.8 ypc, and 202 ypg vs. 134 ypg) and sacks (only 8 vs. FBS foes) than the year before, but 2nd-year d.c. Matt Wallerstedt now has a more-experienced unit with eight starters back in the fold. Most of last year’s injury woes were concentrated in the front seven, but among the three graduated starters were also the platoon’s best playmakers, including DE Rick Ricketts and OLB Patrick Hennessey (who combined for 20 tackles for loss and 4 ½ sacks) and big-play CB Reggie Rembert. A couple of returning srs., DE Zach Payne and ILB Jordan Waiwaiole, have the potential to emerge as similar disruptive influences, but Wallerstedt is going to need his stop unit to develop more consistent pressure up front, and not have to rely upon blitzing DBs to hurry opposing QBs in their throws. The return to health of ILB Ken Lamendola, a starter before injuring a knee in 2009 and then sitting out last year in rehab, will be key. If all goes to plan, srs. CB Anthony Wright and S Jon Davis will be allowed to stay “at home” more often in passing situations, where their big-play ability could be better unleashed, and the TO ratio may return back to something close to the 2009 numbers, which were the nation’s best (+22, compared to just +7 a year ago). Seven seniors are among the eight returning starters on the stop unit.

Summary...Another bowl trip seems a given at the Force, but this is also the year in which some Mountain West observers believe the Falcs could be ready for a major breakthrough. Much of that optimism is based around the belief that 4th-year starting QB Tim Jefferson is a special talent, and can make the sort of plays both with his arm and legs, outside the confines of the somewhat-limited option, that can push Air Force into the sort of altitude usually reserved for its renowned Thunderbirds, who have also inspired a popular “change strip” from the normal Falcon uniform ensemble, still one of college football’s best. Jefferson’s ability to stay healthy, uncovering decent replacements for Jared Tew and Nathan Walker at FB, and keeping the first-team defenders off the injured list should translate into at least another 8-win regular season, and perhaps even better. If the Force can pull the upset at home in Week Two over TCU, look out. As always, remember to keep an eye on the Falcs as an underdog, spots in which they have covered the spread 61% of the time since Calhoun’s arrival. And pay attention after the season concludes to see which big-name suitors will come knocking at Calhoun's door.

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