U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. --
Preparations are underway for the 2016 season of Falcon Football.
The team comes off a 14-game season with an 8-6 record, after competing in the conference championship game and the Armed Forces Bowl.
But head coach Troy Calhoun looks at the upcoming season as one of change and rebuilding.
“For us at the Air Force Academy, it’s a massive overhaul,” Calhoun said. “I think you start every season from scratch, probably even more so this season. We had 20 seniors graduate this May. That’s 20 seniors with a wealth of game experience and knowledge leaving our football program. But when you look at the bigger picture, the Air Force gained 20 new officers, and that’s part of our overall mission here at the Air Force Academy and part of our contributions to the greater Air Force.”
Entering his 10th season as head coach, Calhoun has posted a 67-50 record and wrangled eight bowl appearances in the last nine seasons. Thus, the coach’s conservative approach to the upcoming season might be far more humble than the expectations of Falcon Football fanatics or the ever-growing hoard of sports commentators. The coaches have to work with what they know and see, and it’s been three months since their last snap in practice. One known commodity for the coaches is the talent that has left the program from graduation.
“On offense, we lost three starting linemen, a starting quarterback and our three-year starter at tight end in Garrett Griffin. So this year will be a bit of rebuilding, if you want to call it that,” Calhoun said.
“There are so many positions we have to fill this year, just offensively, and replace some key defensive playmakers,” Calhoun said. “It’s going to be a tough, challenging go of it. But I think when you attend the Academy, those are things you embrace and that means there are opportunities here for some new guys to come in and become good leaders and good contributors for us.”
Turnover is part of the college football game. Falcon Football coaches may look at the 2016 season as a rebuilding year, but their rebuilding efforts will be bolstered by a rich arsenal of solid, proven weapons. In terms of returning starters on offense, an initial look does back up the coach’s comments on rebuilding, since only five starters return on offense, including Senior Nate Romine. He started the first two games of 2015 at quarterback before an injury ended his season. Romine is the odds-on favorite to return as starting quarterback, barring a stellar breakthrough by others on the depth chart. Romine also brings a wealth of experience, as he has played in 16 games and started in eight over the last three seasons.
Similar to Romine, lettermen who weren’t starters are not without significant playing time. During games, coaches regularly rotate players during any series as the situation calls for different personnel groupings and as different plays or defensive schemes are called. Add to this the need to run in plays and schemes to the on-field captains, and you’ll see players rotating out virtually every play. Thus, players who aren’t starters still have significant game experience. Overall, 65 lettermen return from last year’s Falcons.
Two of those lettermen are the offensive line’s foundation and starters in 2015: Senior Colin Sandor and Junior Alex Norton. Depth from last season will fill the remaining starting spots. Falcon O-line starters tend to be juniors or seniors under the current coaching staff, maximizing the years of practice and game experience in the game of physical chess that is offensive line play under O-line coach Clay Hendrix, so the team is used to replacing graduating seniors with equally-talented players each season.
Running through holes created by that offensive line is a backfield full of returning starters and contributors. Seniors Shane Davern and D.J. Johnson return to play fullback and human-wrecking ball to defenses. They combined for 748 yards and 10 touchdowns, laying the foundation for the Falcons rushing attack to end the season fourth-best in the nation, averaging 319.4 yards per game. One of the benefactors of the fullbacks’ ferocity was Senior Jacobi Owens.
Owens is on two preseason award watch lists, and led the Falcons in rushing last season with 1,092 yards on 205 carries for an average of 78.0 yards per game. Owens started the first six games last season at tailback, before moving to fullback for the last eight games due to injuries in the backfield. At fullback he averaged 99.0 yards rushing per game.
Questions do arise at receiver for 2016. The receiving game’s cornerstone is Senior wide receiver Jalen Robinette, a potent blocker in the run game who excels as a receiver. Going into this season, he ranks sixth in school history in receptions and third in receiving yards. New starters will fill in at the other receiver and tight end slots, and they may be able to exploit opposing defenses’ concentration on Robinette.
One of the benefactors of that defensive attention should be Junior running back Tim McVey. He is the Falcons’ real secret weapon going into the season, after leading the team in scoring last year with 13 touchdowns and racking up 887 all-purpose yards. Look for the coaching staff to find creative ways to get McVey on the field this season and move him around the formations to take advantage of this multi-dimensional threat.
On defense, some big names have left the program, but a host of proven players remain. The Falcons defense returns eight starters, most notably defensive backs Weston Steelhammer and Roland Ladipo. Both are on the Jim Thorpe Award watch list for consideration as the nation’s top defensive back, and were the team’s two top tacklers in 2015. A solid corps of linebackers return to increase competition for starting spots, and 46 separate Falcons registered tackles last year, so the defense has the makings of a strong unit going in to 2016.
On special teams, the Falcons return punter/kicker Luke Strebel and long snapper Andrew Gikas, signaling another consistent kicking game for 2016.
Fall practice begins Aug. 5, and is open to the public. The fall season’s first game is home against Abilene Christian, noon Sept. 3 at Falcon Stadium. This is followed by home games against Georgia State, Navy, New Mexico, Hawai’i, Colorado State and Boise State. Away games are at Utah State, Wyoming, Fresno State, Army and San Diego State. The Oct. 15 game against New Mexico will be played at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.