Air Force Preview 2006 - Defense
Posted Aug 7, 2006

Air Force Falcons Preview 2006 - Falcon Defense

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 secondary.

Returning Leaders
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

Defensive Line
There's 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

Projected Starters
- 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.

Top Backups
- 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 hit.
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

Projected Starters
- 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 spots.

Top Backups
- 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.

Defensive Backs
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

Projected Starters
- 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 pass
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 passes
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.  

Top Backups
- 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 needed.
- 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.

Special Teams
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

Projected Starters
- 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.

Related Stories
Air Force Preview 2006 - Depth Chart
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Air Force Preview 2006 - Further Analysis
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BYU Preview 2006
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