Air Force Falcons (2000: 9-3)
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Coach and programWhen Air Force coach Fisher DeBerry was recently asked when he was going to retire, he took a little bit of umbrage at the question and replied, "Why, do you think I'm getting old?"
Well, at 63, DeBerry is just two years away from the standard retirement age. But as far as DeBerry is concerned, he isn't about to retire any time soon, at least not until he's not wanted any more.
And that certainly shouldn't be the case any time soon, not after the success DeBerry has enjoyed since taking over the program in 1984. He has compiled a winning record in all but two of his 17 seasons with a 135-72-1 overall mark and 77-48-1 conference record. He's taken his team to 11 bowl games and won six, including last year's Silicon Valley Bowl, where the Falcons defeated Fresno State, 37-34.
A year ago, the Falcons were picked for the middle of the pack in the Mountain West Conference, only to finish second. They were the only team to defeat league champion Colorado State. Air Force had just seven starters returning, but that is normal at the Academy, where most players work their way up the depth chart and mostly play as juniors and seniors.
That will be the case again this year as the Falcons have just eight starters returning from last year's 9-3 team. But the senior class has been very successful so far, compiling a 27-9 record over the last three years and winning three Commander-in-Chief trophies. If they win another this year, they will become just the third class to win four CIC trophies.
Last year, the Falcons promised before the season started that they would pass the ball a lot more and put the "Air'' back in Air Force under new offensive coordinator Chuck Peterson.
They kept their promise in producing the most passing yards in a season in 28 years and the sixth highest total in school history. Quarterback Mike Thiessen is gone and the Falcons will have to hope they can find a replacement to run the offense as effectively as effectively.
OffenseDeBerry lists three quarterbacks who could take over for Thiessen, but says that senior Keith Boyea (5-10, 190) is the favorite heading into the fall. Boyea was actually ahead of Thiessen two years ago before running into problems and having to sit out the 1999 season while serving an academy suspension.
Boyea backed up Thiessen last year, but completed only 3-of-8 passes for 27 yards and rushed for 26 yards and a touchdown. In the spring game, he rushed for 51 yards and completed 8-of-18 passes, but he also fumbled and threw two interceptions.
At Air Force, fullback is very important, second perhaps only to the quarterback in the Falcon offense. That's true not only because the fullbacks are expected to run the ball, but because their blocking skills are vital to the wishbone.
Sophomore Dan Shaffer (5-11, 195) looks to be the starter heading into fall despite his size. He doesn't look much like a fullback. But Shaffer beat out two more experienced players in senior Jimmy Burns (5-11, 210) and junior Anthony Kelley (5-9, 205).
Last year, senior receiver Ryan Fleming put together one of the best seasons a receiver has ever had at the Air Force. The 6-5, 220-pound Fleming caught 52 passes for 930 yards. That was the second-best receiving total in AFA history and the fourth-best total for receptions.
Defense and special teams"Probably the strength of our team is the defensive front,'' DeBerry said. "Those three are as good as we've had here. They will be as physical and athletic as any we've ever had."
"Those three'' are senior left tackle Dan Probert (6-4, 270), senior right tackle Justin Pendry (6-6, 285) and nose guard Zach Johnson (6-3, 265).
Pendry and Johnson are returning starters from last year when Pendry ranked fifth on the team with 48 tackles, while Johnson was eighth with 34 tackles and also recorded one sack. The Falcons lost three of their four top linebackers in C.J. Zanotto, Matt Pommer and Corey Nelson. Senior Matt McCraney (6-2, 220) has the most experience with one start as a sophomore, but a serious knee injury kept him out most of last year and slowed him again this spring, causing him to miss all of practice. Still, he should be a starter on the outside come fall.
The Air Force secondary looks solid with three players who saw a lot of starting experience last year, led by senior strong safety Sam Meinrod (6-1, 200). Meinrod was sixth on the team in tackles last year with 43, including 2 1/2 sacks and also came up with an interception, a fumble recovery and five pass deflections.
The Falcons are hopeful senior kicker Brooks Walters (6-0, 185) will fill the shoes of Dave Adams as well as Adams did for Jackson Whiting a year earlier. Adams converted on 19 of his 24 field goals, including a 54-yarder, and 37-of-39 PATs last year, only a slight dropoff from Whiting's numbers of the year before.
Bottom lineWith only eight starters back and a new quarterback operating the option, the last thing the Falcons need is a tough season opener. So what team did they go and schedule for Sept. 1? None other than defending national champion Oklahoma.
"Our team has to grow up fast,'' DeBerry said. "We're going to have a lot of young players with very little game experience at some positions.''
The Falcons are known for their offense, but this year, at least in the early going, the defense will be the strength of the team. They may be hard-pressed to get four wins in the Mountain West Conference unless their offense gets in gear by mid-season. Regardless if they win the MWC title, the Falcons should add another Commander-in-Chief's Trophy to their collection and with seven or eight wins overall could find themselves in another bowl game.