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Air Force has had three sub-.500 seasons since Fisher DeBerry arrived as head coach in 1983. The 67-year-old coach isn't interested in a fourth.
With a freshman starting quarterback and a slew of inexperience on both sides of the ball, the Falcons slumped to 5-6 last season and failed to post a winning record for the first time since '93.
Air Force played 18 freshmen a year ago -- a record under DeBerry. The team failed to play in a bowl game for the second straight season, and again lost the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy to Navy.
"They are not satisfied to be .500. This is not a .500 program," DeBerry said. "This is a program that has won 161 games in 21 years, and this is a program that wants to get that dad-gum trophy back and that wants and expects to be in a bowl game, and this is team that legitimately, if we stay healthy and play like the coaches think they can, this is a team that can make a run."
Sophomore quarterback Shaun Carney is the future of the Falcons. DeBerry reinforced that by moving challengers Adam Fitch to running back and Andy Gray to safety.
Carney was the first freshman quarterback to start a season-opener at Air Force and is capable of throwing for 1,000 yards and rushing for 1,000 more. Last season, Carney threw for 1,315 yards and 11 passing touchdowns while running for 596 yards and six rushing scores.
Fitch should fit in nicely at running back, too, where he is desperately needed. With seven runners graduated or kicked out of the Academy a year ago, Fitch will get plenty of work right off the bat. Even though he has never played the position, he has more running experience than two other projected starters, Justin Handley and Chad Smith.
Jacobe Kendrick should help the team re-discover its fullback running game as well.
Fitch and Kendrick shouldn't have trouble finding running room. The Falcons return all five starters along the offensive line, led by a pair of seniors in center Jon Wilson and right tackle Ross Weaver.
Air Force doesn't pass the ball often, but that could change this year. If so, Jason Brown could be a big reason why. Brown has the size (6-foot-4) and speed of a prominent wide receiver -- traits the run-oriented Falcons aren't used to having at wideout. He also has a newfound commitment to football after giving up baseball to focus on the gridiron. Last season, he caught just nine passes but made them count, averaging 18.2 yards per catch.
Air Force finished last in the Mountain West by allowing 422.1 yards per game last year. Only five starters return from that unit, which may turn out to be a good thing.
Sophomore linebacker Marcus Brown is poised for an all-conference season in his first year as a full-time starter. Junior Gilberto Perez is expected to be a force at defensive end and should help the defensive line improve. Sophomore free safety Bobby Giannini finished third on the team with 67 tackles and is poised for an even bigger season this year.
Seniors Denny Poland and Mark Carlson could be the best pair of Falcon backs Air Force has had since moving to its 3-3-5 defense. They will be counted on for leadership on this year's team, which is a year older but still young.
Donny Heaton has a big leg but couldn't get enough kicks off. He had five punts blocked last year. Air Force will have to solve its long snapping problems and protection issues.
Scott Eberle is a solid replacement for Michael Greenaway at placekicker. Fitch could rejuvenate the Falcons' kick return team, which hasn't run back a kick for a touchdown in over a decade.
Fitch's move to halfback frees up Carney at quarterback and gives the team more options on offense. Carney is capable of being one of Air Force's best quarterbacks, and given time to mature, the team's offense could return to the form it had two years ago when it led the nation in rushing.
The Falcons will find out quickly how good they are. The season-opener against Washington at Qwest Field in Seattle should determine how the MWC season will go. With four of their first six games on the road, the Falcons need to open with a win against the struggling Huskies.