San Diego State Air Force Football

And in that corner… The Air Force Falcons

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It’s been a tough go of it for Troy Calhoun and Air Force. After an unprecedented run of success the wheels finally have come off this season, with Air Force entering Saturday’s game against Notre Dame a hard luck 1-6.

It’s been a mixed bag of mostly bad for Air Force, a toxic mix of injuries, lack of depth, a tough schedule and some really heartbreaking losses. One of those came last week against San Diego State, when the Aztecs scored a touchdown in the game’s final 100 seconds to complete a fourth quarter rally. The Falcons managed to lose to Nevada in a similar manner, with former Irish assistant Brian Polian’s squad finally taking the lead with under two minutes to go as well.

Covering it all for the Colorado Springs Gazette has been Brent Briggeman. Brent was kind enough to get some really thoughtful answers to my questions, helping to get all of us prepared for Saturday afternoon’s game at the Air Force Academy.

Enjoy.

1. This Air Force team has already lost as many regular season games as they did last year. What gives? Difficult schedule? Tough luck? 14 graduated starters?

As you would probably expect, it’s been a combination of all of these things. Injuries and a suspension have decimated the team at the quarterback position, but the more serious problems have come on the defensive side. Speedy quarterbacks from Utah State and Wyoming were able to pick apart the inexperienced secondary by running into open spaces if the defensive backs stayed in coverage or hitting open receivers if the d-backs broke coverage to step forward in run support.

In between those games was a trip to Boise State, where the Broncos took all the underneath routes that Air Force was giving them by playing off the line of scrimmage and then the Broncos used their superior athletes to provide yards after the catch. Those three games put a cloud over everything and have clearly damaged the confidence of the defense and it has subsequently folded down the stretch in the past three games in allowing second-half leads to slip away. Luck hasn’t helped, as typically sure-handed receivers have dropped passes at key times and injuries have particularly hurt and already thin defensive line. Still, change two plays and the team is 3-4 despite all its woes, which isn’t all that bad for a service academy in a down year.

2. We’ll get to the prolific rushing offense in a second, but what exactly is going on at the quarterback position? Four quarterbacks have gotten opportunities to win the job. Where do things stand heading into the weekend?

Two quarterbacks battled for the job in spring with the fleet-footed Kale Pearson winning the job over Jaleel Awini, a strong-armed replica of Duante Culpepper. Pearson was then lost for the season in the first half of the opener and Awini committed an unspecified violation that dropped him from good standing as a cadet and left him unable to represent the academy in intercollegiate athletics. That left it to third-stringer Karson Roberts, a sophomore who ran for 160 yards at Nevada in his first start but has struggled since then. Roberts left the most recent game with a first-quarter concussion and freshman Nate Romine — who watched the opener from the stands — was thrust into action. Romine seems to have a more diversified skill set, but he’s new to the triple-option and just two months removed from basic training. Roberts returned to practice on Monday and figures to stay in the starting role, but any hint of a return of his symptoms would put Romine back under center.

3. The defense on the other hand has given up over 37 points a game, good for 112th in the country. They’ve coughed up a couple late leads, too. There is young, but inexperienced talent on this defense. Are they up for the challenge or a Tommy Rees led passing attack or an Andrew Hendrix ground-and-pound game?

Air Force’s players are just happy that their choices consist of a passer OR a runner and not a combination of the two, as dual-threat types have shredded this defense. Rees and a passing game could open the door for big plays either in the form of sacks or interceptions, and the Falcons will clearly need some big plays. A Hendrix-led offense would be more likely to take care of the ball and force Air Force to go toe-to-toe and win a traditional scrum. Notre Dame would have to like the odds if that were the case.

4. The ground game seems like a constant. What kind of challenge will they be for a Notre Dame defense that is finally hitting its stride.

If Karson Roberts plays, Notre Dame will have to defend the traditional triple option. The first option is speedy, large fullback Broam Hart, who has shown he can have impact with the ball in his hands. Roberts would be the second option, and he’s shown a slippery ability to find a few more yards than most plays seem to present for him. The tailbacks, Jon Lee and Anthony LaCoste, both have breakaway speed. The whole of the attack is greater than the sum of its parts when it’s working because the speed at which it is executed is faster than most teams can simulate in practice.

5. Troy Calhoun has done a great job at Air Force, but the Falcons do seem to be on a downward trend. He’s seven years into his tenure in Colorado Springs. Where does Calhoun stand right now?

Calhoun remains as secure as any coach in the nation after taking the team to six consecutive bowl games – an almost unheard of feat at a service academy that plays in a competitive conference – and there’s a strong chance that even with a loss on Saturday the Falcons could close on a four-game winning streak because of the layout of the schedule and cruise in with four or five wins in a down season. That’s not going to set off any alarms. However, there’s certainly some unrest with the defensive schemes after the past few seasons. If change isn’t seen in that regard in a hurry, there may be a strong call for new personnel on his staff. Part of the issues with the program stem from some thin numbers in the upper classes that have resulted from some players who either couldn’t make it at the academy or decided it wasn’t for them. There’s always going to be some attrition, but those classes seem to have been decimated more than most and the lack of veterans has been a major hindrance for the team – even if the talent of the younger guys does provide hope for the future.

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You can read more of Brent’s stuff at the Colorado Springs Gazette. You can also follow him on Twitter @BrentBriggeman.

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.