Air Force has been perpetually stuck a step behind BYU, TCU, and Utah in the Mountain West for the past few years, but 2010 could be the year the Falcons make the move to move up the ladder and get into the top three.
The main reason 2010 is the season for Air Force to make a move starts with BYU, which is looking like is is going to be taking a step back. All-time leading rusher Harvey Unga is not returning to the team for violating BYU's strict honor code policy, and BYU is also most likely going to be starting highly rated true freshman Jake Heaps at quarterback. Even if Heaps is not under center for BYU, the Cougars will then be starting Riley Nelson, who has not seen significant time as a quarterback since his Utah State days way back in 2006.
The quest for a great 2010 started last year when the Falcons demolished a Houston team that was number one in total offense when they faced off in the Armed Forces Bowl, and ranked in the top 25 for most of the season. The Air Force defense that was ranked fifth nationally in passing defense picked off Houston's Case Keenum six times and held him to a season low of 222 passing yards in their 47-20 rout. Now all Air Force needs to do is build off of that success to move up the Mountain West pecking order.
Whenever Air Force football is mentioned, the next comment will have something to do with their triple-option offense, and how opposing teams dislike facing them because of that. The offense lives and dies by their run option, which has been in place at the Academy since the Fisher DeBerry days and has continued under current coach Troy Calhoun.
The 2010 version of the Falcons should grow from the 2009 offense because the key skill players are back. The offense goes through quarterback Tim Jefferson who is a junior who has started 19 games in his career, and is actually one of the few Air Force quarterbacks who has an above average throwing arm. Jefferson's ability to pass the ball is a key to keep defenses honest and allows for them to have a deep threat.
Air Force is one of the few schools that really utilizes its fullback and the Falcons have a good one in Jared Tew who was the team's leading rusher at just under 1,000 yards. Tew really hurts opponents with the quick developing fullback dive play. Then there is their starting running back Asher Clark, who had 860 yards last year. He is a key cog in the offense with speed that can tantalize linebackers, defensive ends, and defensive backs. These two are not the only rushers, as the Falcons run deep at running the ball, using four other backs to run the ball last year, all of whom had an average of more than five yards a carry.
There is a downside to the Falcons' offense which is there is only one returning offensive lineman from last year's team. In an option-based offense, the line is important to success since each lineman is typically assigned a player for each play. For most schools, this would mean a rebuilding phase; however, with the disciplined atmosphere at the Academy, the line will need some time to gel but they should be good after their warm-up game against Northwestern State.
While the offense gets the accolades and attention for the Falcons, the defense is quietly becoming a force. Last year they were fifth in the nation in passing defense which was ahead of conference mate TCU who was receiving all the credit for a shutdown defense. The Falcons' defense returns five starters, but that number could actually be seven since linebackers Ken Lamendola and Patrick Hennessey started last year but ended up on the bench.
The strength of the Falcons' defense resides again in the secondary as three of the four starters are back, and their main playmaker, sophomore Anthony Clark, is back . Wright is listed on the preseason watch list for the Bronko Nagurski Award, which is for the nation's top defensive player. The other returning corners are no slouches, as Reggie Rembert was an all-conference player along side Wright. The biggest loss could be the loss of defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, who left for the same position at Texas A&M this past offseason. The replacement is Matt Wallerstedt, who has been coaching the linebackers at the Academy for the past three years, and looks to keep up where DeRuyter left off.
Air Force will know early in the year if they are to move up the pecking order in the Mountain West as they play BYU at home in the second week of the season.