The Falcons suffered through a torrid season in 2013, winning just 2 games and coming within a TD of their opponents in just 3 others. After a 6-game bowl streak came crashing to a halt, the Falcons find themselves in unfamiliar territory. With the Mountain West getting stronger, the academy needs to get back on the right track, or an extended stay in the cellar could be on the cards.
On paper, last season’s offense looked pretty good – productive running attack, quietly effective passing attack – but something just seemed lacking. The biggest issue was at quarterback, where Air Force used 4 different players due to injuries and other reasons. Fourth-stringer Nate Romine finished the season, but certainly didn’t play like someone buried on the depth chart. At running back, Anthony LaCoste stepped up down the stretch, and finished with 890 yards and 6 scores.
The offense may need to reload again in 2014, despite losing only 5 starters. Why? Well, only left tackle Matt Rochell returns from the offensive line. AF tend to slot guys in seamlessly, but they lose a pair of multi-year starters in Austin Hayes and Drew Kerber. LaCoste needs to be replaced too – another area of no great concern. Jon Lee played well at times last season and will likely replace him. Broam Hart will be back at fullback. Quarterback could be better for its changing lineup last season. Training camp should see a spirited battle between Kale Pearson, Karson Roberts and Nate Romine. At receiver, Ty McArthur only played in 3 games, and will have graduated. His big-play ability will be missed. With him out, the Falcons spread the ball around and got some good production (by AF standards), led by Garrett Brown (19-237-1)
The main reason for the Falcons demise last season was the defense. Injuries certainly played a part, especially up front, and the run defense was regularly gouged. AF tends to struggle against the run due to the size restrictions on recruits, but giving up over 250 yards is poor even by their standards. More disappointing was the play of the secondary, which has slipped since it’s no-fly zone days as recent as 2 years ago.
Here’s the good news – that was a young, inexperienced Falcon defense in 2013 – the Falcons lose just 1 full-time starter, Steffon Batts, and return almost everyone else of note. The line took a big hit last season when Joseph Champaign was knocked out for the season in week 1. He’s a battler who will make plays on pure will, and should be good to go this season. Linebacker Spencer Proctor played most of the season with a cast on his right hand thanks to a broken thumb, yet didn’t miss a game and made 77 tackles. The whole unit returns next season. The secondary will miss Batts, but free safety Christian Spears led the team with 92 tackles and 2 interceptions, and will keep things ticking over. Strong safety Dexter Walker was second with 91 tackles, despite playing in just 10 games (8 starts). If they can replace Batts, the secondary will be a lot stronger this season.
This was a solid unit overall. Freshman Will Conant won the kicking job in camp and hit 11 of 13 attempts on the year, including 3 from 52 yards out. Punter David Baska only had 9 of his 48 punts returned, for a mere 35 yards. The kick return unit was good, but the coverage could have been better, as could punt returning. The unit blocked an excellent 7 kicks.
Baska needs to be replaced at punter, but Drew Oehrle should be good enough to replace him. LaCoste was the primary kick returner, but there are other options. Finding even a half-decent punt returner would be nice.
With the schedule proper yet to be released, it’s difficult to give an overly accurate prediction, but the Mountain West has gotten better recently courtesy of realignment. Even so, the team should be better, on defense at the very least, and should be back around 6 wins and a bowl game.