What you need to know ...
The defense has been awful over the last two seasons and
there's no immediate sign of a huge improvement. Overall, the Falcons
have to force more turnovers and not give up so many big plays, but both
will only happen with more of a pass rush. The strength is at tackle
where Gilberto Perez and Grant Thomas should be the best the team has
had in a while. There's no depth at linebacker and the ends are small
and unproven pass rushers. There are several corner options and a star
in free safety Bobby Giannini to hope for a big improvement in the
Tackles: Bobby Giannini, 92
Sacks: Several with 1
Interceptions: Bobby Giannini, 3
Star of the defense: Junior FS Bobby Giannini
Player that has to step up and become a star: Sophomore
DE Jake Paulson
Unsung star on the rise: Senior LB Joey Keller
Best pro prospect: Giannini
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Giannini, 2) DT
Gilberto Perez 3) LB Drew Fowler
Strength of the defense: Tackle, corner
Weakness of the defense:
Linebacker, proven pass rush
enough talent to run a four-man front with 275-pound tackles Gilberto
Perez and Grant Thomas looking to clog things up. If one of them goes
down, some overall reshuffling will be done with no size whatsoever waiting in the wings. The ends
must come up with more of a pass rush after the Falcons generated a mere
13 sacks last year. Considering most of the linemen are a quick,
linebacker-sized 240 to 245 pounds, there's no excuse not to get into
the backfield more.
The key to the unit: Gilberto Perez and Grant Thomas
must stay healthy and have to be rocks against the run.
Defensive Line Rating: 5
- LDE Jake Paulson, Soph.
Paulson might be the key to the defensive front. If the 6-5, 260-pound
sophomore can hold his own, the defense can play a 4-2-5 and the tackles
can remain in place. He has good potential as a pass rusher and needs to
be a solid run stopper as the team's biggest end.
- DT Gilberto Perez, Sr. - 33 tackles, 1 sack, 9.5 TFL
By far the team's best defensive lineman, the 275-pound senior can play
inside or out and still be effective at getting into the backfield. He
earned honorable mention All-Mountain West honors and led the team in
tackles for loss despite missing the final two games with a knee injury.
- DT Grant Thomas, Sr. - 17 tackles, 1 TFL
A reserve for most of last year, the 275-pound Thomas stepped in for
Gilberto Perez over the final two games and wasn't bad. He'll combine
with Kevin Quinn at right tackle and could start as a nose guard if the
D goes to a three man front.
- RDE Josh Clayton, Jr. - 14 tackles, 3 TFL
Clayton spend last year as an end and has seen time as a tackle. He
might not be a top pass rusher, but he's a strong 250 pounds and should
be good against the run.
- DT Kevin Quinn, Sr. - 3 tackles, 1 sack
More of an end than a tackle, the 245-pound senior will try to use his
quickness to see time on the right side behind Grant Thomas.
- DT Chris Monson, Jr.
Able to add some athleticism to the inside, the 6-4, 240-pound former
tight end will try to see time at left tackle behind Gilberto Perez.
The Air Force defense basically uses two true linebackers
and two hybrid safety/outside linebackers. However the formation looks,
there has to be more production. Drew Fowler should be one of the team's
leading tacklers again and one of the team's top players against the
run, but there are plenty of question marks around him with Joey Keller
needing to prove he can hold up as a starter and little in the way of
depth. Some of the safeties will move over to linebacker if injuries
The key to the unit: Wreak more havoc. The
linebackers did next to nothing when it came to forcing turnovers and
failed to generate any pressure in the backfield. That has to change.
Linebacker Rating: 5
- Drew Fowler, Jr. - 77 tackles, 1 sack, 5.5 TFL
Fowler turned into one of the team's biggest surprises finishing second
on the team in tackles after starting the final nine games. He's not the
fastest linebacker, but he's always around the ball and is always solid
against the run. He has been at his best against the other service
academies with 24 strops against Army and Navy. With his experience he
has to be a more disruptive force.
- Joey Keller, Sr. - 22 tackles
At 6-2 and 240 pounds, Keller is the team's biggest linebacker and needs
to build on a decent first season and be strong against the run. He'll
rotate with the smaller, quicker Jared Baxley at one of the inside
- Jared Baxley, Sr. - 17 tackles
More of a physical safety than a true linebacker, the 6-0, 200-pound
senior started the first two games of last year and made five tackles.
He was a surprise in fall drills, but failed to keep up the momentum
throughout the season. With his experience and quickness, he has to be a
key all-around defender in the rotation with Joey Keller.
- Austin Randle, Jr.
With John Rabold moving to a safety-like Falcon back, Randle has to
shine as a backup behind Drew Fowler. He has decent size at 220 pounds
and has to prove he can hold up against the run.
The secondary got torched by anyone who could throw the
forward pass. There wasn't a big play the group didn't give up allowing
255 yards per game, but part of the problem was the lack of help from a
pass rush. There's hope for a big improvement with four decent corner
prospects to work in a rotation along with the return of free safety
Bobby Giannini, who should be one of the best defensive backs in the he
conference. John Rabold and Julian Madrid will have to prove they can be
consistent at the hybrid safety/linebacker Falcon Back.
The key to the unit: Come up with more plays on third
downs and don't give up as many long passes.
Secondary Rating: 5.5
- CB Garrett Rybak, Jr. - 6 tackles
Rybak turned into one of the big surprises of spring ball and will
combine with Nathan Smith for the job on the left side. He's a strong
tackler with enough speed to eventually become a strong playmaker.
However, he's going to need time.
- FS Bobby Giannini, Jr. - 92 tackles, 3 interceptions, 2 broken
up passes, 2.5 TFL
One of the best all-around defenders in the Mountain West, the 6-2,
210-pound junior has 159 tackles in his first two seasons and proved to
be a dangerous player to throw at. He's not only lead the team in
tackles, he had 12 more solo tackles than anyone else. He hits like a
linebacker and covers like a corner.
- Falcon John Rabold, Jr. - 36 tackles, 1 sack, 2.5 TFL
With the concerns at the Falcon position, Rabold moved from linebacker
to defensive back. He saw time in the defensive backfield on the scout
team as a freshman and should be one of the team's top tacklers once he
gets a hang of the full-time role.
- Falcon Julian Madrid, Jr. - 27 tackles, 1 sack, 1 broken up
A backup safety last year, Madrid turned into a good producer by the end
of the season on both defense and special teams. He's a strong tackler
who needs to prove he can handle himself well when the ball is in the
air. He can play free safety if needed.
- CB Chris Sutton, Sr. - 47 tackles, 2 interception, 9 broken up
Sutton should be one of the league's best all-around corners with
safety-like hitting ability and good cover skills. With his experience
and talents, he has to become the type of player who makes passing games
pay for throwing at him.
- CB Carson Bird, Jr. - 52 tackles, 1 interception, 3
broken up passes
Bird ended up starting in nine games and will combine at one of the
spots if he doesn't take over on the left side. He proved to be a better
tackler than a coverman and could be moved to safety if absolutely
- CB Nathan Smith, Jr. - 20 tackles, 1 broken up pass
More than good enough start, Smith is the team's fastest corner. He has
to be more consistent to get back into the starting mix on the left side
in a battle with Garrett Ryback.
- Falcon Adam Zanotti, Jr. - 10 tackles
Zanotti saw most of his time on special teams and got
occasional work at safety. While not as big as starter John Rabold, he's
plenty tough against the run.
The kicking game will be a work in progress with Ryan
Harrison looking to handle all the duties. The hope will be for the same
production from the coverage units after allowing a mere 6.1 yards per
punt return and 15.5 yards per kickoff return. Chris Sutton and Chad
Hall will get the main looks as the kick returners.
The key to the unit: Consistency from the kicking
game and more punch from the kickoff return game.
Offensive Line Rating: 6
- PK/P Ryan Harrison, Soph.
It'll be up to Harrison to take over all the kicking duties replacing
placekicker Scott Eberle and punter Donny Heaton. He can bomb the ball,
but if he's not consistent, he'll give up the punting job and just work
on his field goal kicking.