Painted neatly in white and blue letters atop a hill overlooking Air Force's practice field are the letters N.O.W. The acronym stands for No Opportunities Wasted, and the Falcons' players chose it as their slogan this season.
It's on the Falcons' minds, it's on their T-shirts and it's on the hill where they convene in front of coach Fisher DeBerry before practice each day.
And never has a team's slogan seemed more appropriate.
Air Force wasted the 2003 season, fizzling to a 7-5 finish after a sizzling 5-0 start. The Falcons missed out on a bowl game, slipped to a tie for fourth in the Mountain West and lost the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy to rival Navy for the first time in seven years.
The Falcons will attempt to rebound with a new cast of lead characters -- just four starters are back in '04.
OffenseAir Force is unsure of its quarterback and offensive line, but its skill players are the backbone of the team. The Falcons' top three wingbacks -- Darnell Stephens, Anthony Butler and Matt Ward -- are back, as are fullbacks Adam Cole and Dan Shaffer. Throw rising star Jacobe Kendrick into the mix -- DeBerry just needs to find a position for the sophomore -- and the pressure on junior quarterback Andy Gray should be lessened.
And if the Falcons want to throw the ball, their two leading receivers return in Alec Messerall and J.P. Waller.
The real question is who will block for the Falcons. Air Force's entire starting offensive line graduated, including its tight end. Only tackle Ross Weaver and center John Peel have ever started games for Air Force, and the production of the Falcons' skill players will depend on how soon the new unit jells.
DefenseIf Air Force's defense has a strength, it's in the middle, where linebacker John Rudzinski will roam. The senior comes from a long line of football players in his family and is the team's leading returning tackler and one of its most fiery leaders. The Falcons will need Rudzinki's leadership, because the rest of their defense is inexperienced.
Cornerback Nate Allen and Falcon back Denny Poland are the team's only other returning starters.
Air Force replaces three starters on its defensive line and three starters in the secondary. The coaching staff expects big things out of linemen Gilberto Perez and Ryan Carter.
"Ability-wise, if you look at it in terms of physical talent, we are not as good as we were because we had a lot of good kids that graduated," defensive coordinator Richard Bell said. "I don't think this bunch of kids will flinch, back off from anything, but we are going to have to be the type of defense where we can't afford to have a bad play."
SpecialistsPunter Donny Heaton has a career 54-yard punting average. The only problem is he's had just one punt in his career, which pretty much sums up the Falcons' specialists. There's talent there, but hardly any experience.
Heaton, who booted his 54-yarder against Wofford last year, will fill in for Andrew Martin, but the team's placekicking picture is much more muddled. Senior Michael Greenaway has been the team's kickoff specialist the past two years but has had problems with accuracy. Junior Scott Elberle emerged from spring atop the depth chart, but soccer standout Danny Wasson will be given an opportunity in the fall.
Final AnalysisThe Falcons always soar as high as their quarterback takes them, which puts much of the pressure to rebound from last year's disappointing season on the shoulders of Gray, a junior who has never thrown a pass in a game and spent the last two years on a Mormon mission in Africa. Gray admits he's rusty, but he's got a stronger arm than two-year starter Chance Harridge, and a solid signal-caller can cover up a lot of blemishes in the Falcons' offense.
Air Force has a soft non-conference schedule beyond its season-opener against California, and if their young defense can keep them in games, the Falcons may be bowl-bound after all.