2011 Air Force Preview – Defense
Air Force S Jon Davis
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Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: The Air Force defense couldn't get into the backfield, it couldn't hit the quarterback, and it got flattened by TCU and most of the better running teams on the slate. It was still a terrific season with the defense finishing second in the nation in pass defense, 28th in scoring defense, and 37th in total defense. Okay, so it's not like the Falcons faced a ton of teams who know how to throw a forward pass, but it was still an impressive year and the D should be great again. Moving back and forth between a 3-4 and a 4-3, the defense will do what's needed to make up for the glaring lack of size up front. The strength is at inside linebacker, while the safeties, particularly Jon Davis, are terrific. A pass rush has to come from somewhere and more takeaways would be nice, but with eight starters returning, everything will be fine.
Star of the defense: Senior LB Jordan Waiwaiole
Tackles: Jordan Waiwaiole, 96
Sacks: Patrick Hennessy, Jordan Waiwaiole, 2
Interceptions: Jon Davis, 3
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior DT Ryan Gardner
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore S Anthony Wooding
Best pro prospect: Senior S Jon Davis
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Waiwaiole, 2) Davis, 3) LB Brady Amack
Strength of the defense: Pass Defense, Linebacker
Weakness of the defense: Size, Pass Rush
State of the Unit: The line didn't work. The pass defense as technically special, but that's mostly because the 1) the secondary was great and 2) because everyone was able to run at will on the Air Force front three. The Falcons were miserable against good ground games allowing 202 yards per game and failed to generate any sort of a pass rush, but now the hope is for two solid returning starters while needing to replace Rick Ricketts and his 71 tackles and ten tackles for loss.
The key to the line will be Ryan Gardner in the middle as an undersized nose guard. At 6-3 and 260 pounds he needs to be a part of a rotation, but he's extremely quick and very active making 29 tackles. He doesn't get into the backfield making one tackle for loss, and he has the athleticism and the burst to do far more. After bulking up to get to his current weight, the senior isn't going to get any bigger. However, he's a hulk compared to the other option on the inside, 6-3, 220-pound senior Ross Fleming, who came up with three tackles in a reserve role. He'll also be a key backup at right end.
Back in his starting spot at left end is 6-3, 255-pound senior Zach Payne after making 55 tackles with a sack and 6.5 tackles for loss. Expected to be a part of the mix going into last year, he ended up starting every game and was active against the run. However, he wasn't much of a pass rusher and wasn't disruptive enough. 6-3, 235-pound sophomore David Vinson is a speedster who has the burst to become a decent factor in the backfield.
Trying to take over on the other side for Ricketts is senior Henry Kehs, a 6-4, 260-pounder who hasn't done enough in his limited time with just two tackles last year. He's one of the team's biggest outside options, and he needs to use his bulk to add ore to the run defense with Fleming also working in the rotation.
Watch Out For … Fleming. The Falcon line desperately needs some semblance of reliable depth, and Fleming will be the key part of the rotation both on the nose and at right end. The line can't hold up without several players working in and out, and if Fleming isn't great, there will be problems.
Strength: Quickness. The line has no size whatsoever, but it's extremely active and it gets to the ball. It might be a bit too far down the field, but it gets to the ball.
Weakness: Size and pass rush. Always an issue for the Falcons, the quickness and athleticism is supposed to make up for the lack of bulk. However, there weren't nearly enough plays in the backfield and there was nothing happening against the run. Pass rush-wise, losing Wade Lawal to a knee injury is devastating to the depth and what the line was hoping to do.
Outlook: The Falcons basically used three linebackers on the line and hope for the best. It would be nice if there was one big squatter who could sit in the middle and clog things up, but he isn't there. Some untested players have to step up and be a part of the rotation, but right now, this could be the team's biggest question mark. The front three has to find something it can do well.
Unit Rating: 5
State of the Unit: The linebacking corps should be phenomenal, and it'll have to be with a weak front three likely to have major problems against the run. Three starters are back and there's decent depth to get excited about, and if there's any pressure into the backfield, it'll have to come from this group.
Last year at this time, Jordan Waiwaiole was expected to simply be a decent part of the rotation. Instead, he started every game on the inside and was a devastating playmaker leading the team with 96 tackles with two sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. A huge hitter, the 6-3, 230-pound senior and picked up a fumble for a 52-yard score against Army, and he picked off a pass against Navy. Always around the ball, he came up with 15 stops against Navy and 12 against Utah. He'll be the leader of the good linebacking corps, while 6-2, 235-pound senior Ken Lamendola is back from major injuries problems, including a knee issue, and now he's finally as healthy as he has been in years. He made 118 tackles in 2008, but he's just getting right again.
At the other inside spot will be Brady Amack, who went from being a nice reserve to starting almost every game last year finishing third on the team with 82 tackles with 1.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss. He also came up with a 50-yard interception return in the opener against Northwestern State. At 6-0 and 225 pounds, the senior is a smallish, tough player who makes big things happen when they come his way. A stat-sheet filler, he'll be great once again playing next to Waiwaiole. Backing him up on the inside is good-hitting junior Austin Niklas, a 6-2, 225-pound reserve who came up big whenever he had a chance making 41 tackles. He stepped into the starting role against UNLV and showed what he could do when given a chance with 14 tackles with two tackles for loss and a broken up pass.
6-2, 225-pound senior Patrick Hennessy returns to the outside after making 60 tackles with two sacks and ten tackles for loss. He was phenomenal against San Diego State with nine solo stops and a sack, and he was steady the rest of the way. After adding weight, he's stronger and should be better against the run, but his key is his burst to the ball and into the backfield. Durability concerns are always going to be there, but he has all-star potential if he can do a bit more to get behind the line.
Trying to take over the lone open starting spot on the other outside position is junior Alan Means, who at 6-5 and 220 pounds is built like a smallish defensive end in the Air Force mold, and that's what he might end up being with the defense works in a 4-3. He didn't do anything to get behind the line, but he came up with 22 tackles as a key reserve. Also in the hunt for the job is Jamil Cooks, a fast sophomore who might be more of a disruptive force after making 13 tackles as a reserve. Both of them have to become pass rushers.
Watch Out For … Hennessey. Health might be a concern, but the inside linebackers are so good that Hennessey should be able to roam free and do whatever he can to blow things up. He knows what he's doing and he should flirt with All-Mountain West honors.
Strength: Inside defenders. Waiwaiole is fantastic, Amack is a playmaker, and if Lamendola is able to finally stay on the field, he'll join Niklas to provide the depth needed to step in and work anytime. The Falcons are loaded at playmakers inside.
Weakness: The size of the defensive line. This was a big concern last year, and it turned out to be dead on. The smallish front three didn't do anything to stop the run, and the linebackers had to do way, way too much. They're used to it, but it would be nice if they didn't have to carry the water every play.
Outlook: The Falcons are terrific here with depth, versatility, and great tackling ability. There's no reason why this can't be among the Mountain West's best linebacking corps, and the talent is there to stay in a 3-4 alignment while also coming up with a strong rotation.
Unit Rating: 7
State of the Unit: Air Force knows how to defend the pass. Despite not getting any help from a pass rush, the secondary was phenomenal for the second year in a row after being a complete and utter disaster not all that long ago. The tone was set at the end of 2009 by stuffing Case Keenum and the Houston passing game with six interceptions, and the production carried over allowing a mere 148 yards per game and mere ten touchdowns. Star corner Reggie Rembert is gone, but the other three starters are back.
Senior Jon Davis has corner skills and can be used on the outside if needed, but he became a start at safety finishing second on the team with 93 tackles with three picks and two tackles for loss. At 6-1 and 198 pounds, he's a lean, tall defender who hits well and runs better. Good enough to have been given the hard sell from Michigan State as a recruit, he has shown why and now should come up with an even stronger season on his way to all-star honors.
Back at the other safety job is Anthony Wooding, a 6-2, 177-pound sophomore who took over halfway through last year and came up with 30 tackles with a pick and two broken up passes. While he's not built like a typical safety, he has excellent range and isn't afraid to get in on any running play. While he'll start the year as the starter, he'll have to fight off last year's starters, Brian Lindsay, who made 32 tackles with a sack, 4.5 tackles for loss, and broke up three passes before suffering broken clavicle. When he was right he was a star in the making, and while he's expected to be a major part of the secondary again, is he ready? At 6-1 and 210 pounds, the junior has good size and is a big hitter. Now he has to be 100%
Senior Anthony Wright is a rock at one corner, making 50 tackles with two picks and six tackles for loss. The 5-10, 190-pound veteran earned second-team All-Mountain West honors two years ago after picking off seven passes, and now he'll be the No. 1 corner. Keeping up with his schoolwork has been a problem in the past, but all is well and he should be an all-star once again. He'll be backed up by P.J. Adeji-Paul, who at 6-0 and 185 pounds has decent size and good hitting ability making 20 stops last year. Now he has to do more against the pass.
Adeji-Paul will get a long look at the corner job on the other side of Wright, but for now it'll be veteran Josh Hall, who's coming off a 16-tackle year. The 6-0, 175-pound senior moves well and has impressed enough to get the first shot at the job, but 5-8, 183-pound sophomore Chris Miller is an extremely promising option with tremendous upside. He didn't do anything against the pass in his first year, but he made 11 tackles.
Watch Out For … Davis to be the star of the show. A bit overshadowed by Reggie Rembert, Davis is now the main man in the secondary and he should be the type of all-around playmaker (again) who deserves all-star recognition. He should be in for a fantastic year.
Strength: Swarming. The corners are good, the safeties are great at helping out, and it's tough to get much going against this group. Opposing quarterbacks completed just 55% of their throws with ten touchdowns on the year.
Weakness: Great passing teams. The overall stats aren't a mirage, but it's a huge help to face Navy, Army, Wyoming, Georgia Tech, and New Mexico. There weren't many top passing teams on the late last year, but Oklahoma and San Diego State each went over the 250-yard mark, and TCU didn't need to throw with the ground game working so effectively. There's no pass rush to speak of, so if the secondary is going against a hot quarterback, there should be problems.
Outlook: Air Force has figured out how to slow down the pass, and yes, Oklahoma and San Diego State threw for yards, but they had to work for it. Losing a playmaker like Rembert is a problem, but the secondary is full of veterans and full of enough talent to be fantastic once again.
Unit Rating: 7.5
State of the Unit: The Falcons need more out of PK Erik Soderberg, who only connected on 5-of-10 field goals after connecting on 22-of-30 two years ago. He's good from short to midrange, but he's not going to come up with too many bombs, even though he hit a 50-yarder against Colorado State two years ago.
The Falcon punting game was among the best in the nation as Keil Bartholomew averaged 40.4 yards per kick, but one of the keys was QB Tim Jefferson being able to punch the ball once in a while in surprise situations, averaging 45.2 yards on 12 punts with eight being put inside the 20. Sophomore David Baska is the only option going into this year, and while he doesn't have a booming leg, he has been steady in practices.
Star safety Jon Davis will get the first shot at replacing Reggie Rembert as the main punt returner, but that shouldn't be too hard. Rembert only averaged six yards per try, but Anthony Wright was solid averaging 12.3 yards on his six returns. WR Jonathan Warzeka is back to return kickoffs after averaging a whopping 28.7 yards per attempt.
Watch Out For … Baska. The Air Force coverage team will help him out, but as long as he's hanging it up for 40 yards per shot, and as long as he's consistent, the punting game will still be fine.
Strength: Warzeka. He has become a game-breaker of a return man and will be avoided. The punt coverage team is also terrific allowing just 3.8 yards per try.
Weakness: Kicking. Soderberg was terrific two years ago, but he never seemed to find a groove last year. The kick coverage left something to be desired, and now Soderberg has to do more to push the ball deep.
Outlook: The kicking game will be fine, but not exactly anything to get fired up about, while the return game could be excellent if Warzeka can repeat his 2010 performance. Davis and Wight will be excellent on punt returns.
Unit Rating: 6.5
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