Preview 2007 - Defense
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What you need to know:
Air Force hasn't played defense in
about three years and it'll take a major overhaul and a
fantastic coaching job by new coordinator Tim DeRuyter to change
things up. There's no size, not enough speed, and little in the
way of experienced reserves. There has to be some semblance of a
pass rush, and the hope will be for the speedy outside
linebackers in the 3-4 to generate it. Far more has to be done
against the pass. Now for the positives. Drew Fowler is one of
the Mountain West's best linebackers and safety Bobby Giannini
is a tackling machine.
Tackles: Drew Fowler, 123
Sacks: Josh Clayton, 3
Interceptions: John Rabold, 2
Star of the defense: Senior LB Drew Fowler
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior CB
Unsung star on the rise: Senior LB Aaron Shanor
Best pro prospect: Fowler
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Fowler, 2) FS Bobby
Giannini, 3) CB Garrett Rybak
Strength of the defense: Tackling, safety
Weakness of the defense:
Pass defense, pass rush
6-5, 260-pound junior Jake Paulson isn't just the biggest lineman
returning, he's also one of the most experienced and, technically, the
only returning starter. Even so, he only started five times and finished
with just 15 tackles and two sacks. With his size, he has to be a major
factor against the run even though that's not his game. He's a pass
rusher, and he has to start doing it on a regular basis.
On the nose
will be undersized 6-2, 230-pound junior Jared Marvin after
making five tackles as a reserve with two starts. He's tough as nails
considering his size, but he's simply too small to consistently hold at
the point of attack.
6-5, 235-pound junior Ryan Kemp will get the
call at the other end after starting five times and making 26 tackles.
He has the potential to be the team's best lineman and the best
all-around defender up front as long as he can come up with one thing he
can do consistently well.
Projected Top Reserves: There has to be a steady
rotation of players, so backups aren't just backups on this defense.
6-6, 255-pound junior Keith Williams has seen time on both the
offensive and defensive sides playing D when injuries hit the line. He
only made four tackles and played in six games, and now will backup
6-5, 240-pound sophomore Ben Garland is a very quick
noseguard who has to get into the backfield to make an impact. He could
play end if needed. 6-3, 240-pound sophomore Myles Morales
has the potential to be a good pass rusher behind Paulson, but he'll
have to hold off 6-4, 260-pound Josh Clayton, who was having a
great year making 23 tackles with three sacks and three tackles for loss
before suffering a broken wrist. When healthy, he'll likely start.
Watch Out For ... the line be asked to do more
against the run. Built to get into the backfield, in the 3-4 this group
will have to do a better job of holding at the point of attack and let
the linebackers make the big plays.
Strength: Quickness. As small as this group is, it needs
to rely on its speed and athleticism to be productive. However, everyone
has to do a better job of getting into the backfield.
Weakness: Size. Always a problem for Air Force. there's no one,
no one, of any appreciable size to count on against the run. For
some teams, the Falcon front three is the size of their linebacking
Outlook: The line did a stunningly good job of
holding up at times against the run, but for the most part, it got
flattened. (Who give up 204 yards and four touchdowns on the ground to
UNLV?) There isn't any one thing this group can do well, and that's a
problem considering it's size. Anyone with a big, talented line will do
whatever it wants to.
The star of the defense, and the team, is 6-2, 235-pound senior inside
linebacker Drew Fowler, who made 200 tackles over the last two
seasons. He's not fast, but he has a non-stop motor that always gets him
around the ball and always brings a pop. He's not going to get in the
backfield and he's not going to make any plays against the pass. His job
is to stop the run, stop the run, and stop the run some more.
Fowler will be 225-pound senior Aaron Shanor, who went from
non-existent (and not even technically on the roster) to starter after a
great spring. He'll have plenty of chances to make plays with teams
trying to stay away from Fowler.
On the outside, 220-pound senior John Rabold is back at
linebacker after finishing second on the team with 68 tackles, 1.5 sacks
and 5.5 tackles for loss as a Falcon (safety). He needs to be the pass
rusher that's missing from the defensive front three and has to continue
to be decent in pass coverage. With his size and speed, he'll be among
the team's most disruptive defenders.
Junior Hunter Altman will
get the first look on the other side after making 14 tackles as a backup
free safety. While not big at 5-11 and 195 pounds, he'll bring speed to
the corps and be used like a weakside linebacker.
Projected Top Reserves: While Altman got a
starting spot on the outside coming out of spring ball, that could
quickly change once 205-pound senior Julian Madrid starts to be
the player he was last year when he was fourth on the team with 50
tackles, four sacks and two interceptions before suffering an injured
knee. Like Altman, he goes from safety to outside linebacker where he
should flourish despite his size.
230-pound senior Austin Randle
could see time on the inside, but he'll start out behind Fowler. A good
veteran with 42 tackles and decent play in the backfield, he'll be a key
part of the rotation trying to be a factor against the run.
Watch Out For ... the outside linebackers to be
turned loose. While the defense could morph into a 3-3-5 at times with
converted safeties at one outside linebacker spot, if Rabold, Altman and
Madrid aren't getting into the backfield, the defense won't be working.
Strength: Fowler. The heart-and-soul of the defense,
he's the player the rest of the team revolves around and the one player
the D can count on game in and game out. Everything revolves around him.
Weakness: Experience at the second inside linebacker spot. He
might have looked good in spring ball and the coaching staff might like
him, but it's asking a lot for Shanor to to be a star. He'll put up
stats next to Fowler, but they have to be meaningful.
Outlook: It should be fine with everything
funneling towards Fowler. The outside linebackers have to be the stars
who get into the backfield so the inside defenders can make plays
against the run. If Fowler is being asked to get into the backfield,
there could be overall trouble since that'll mean the secondary could
potentially have to make more tackles against the run.
Junior FS Bobby Giannini was the one bright spot in a lousy
secondary making 64 tackles and 223 over the last three years.
Unfortunately, he didn't do nearly enough when the ball was in the air,
and hasn't over the last two seasons for a free safety, but he's
tremendous in run support. He's 6-2 and 210 pounds and more like a
strong safety with the way he plays and covers.
Thomas was a nice reserve last season making 25 tackles showing good
open-field hitting skills. He's not big at 5-11 and 198 pounds and isn't
going to be great in coverage, but he can hit.
Senior Garrett Rybak was a surprise in spring ball last season
and ended up starting every game making 48 tackles with one
interception, and now he has to prove he can be a number one corner. He
has decent quickness, good speed and is a great hitter, but he's not
huge and he has to be far more consistent against the pass.
Carson Bird saw action in ten games making five tackles after a huge
sophomore season when he made 52 stops. He's a better tackler than he is
a pass defender and will see plenty of passes his way with teams staying
away from Rybak.
Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore Aaron
Kirchoff was a strong backup making 32 tackles and was decent
starting at the end of the season. At 6-1 and 200 pounds, he has good
size and nice range playing behind Giannini and could see time at strong
safety if needed.
Junior Nathan Smith is a veteran reserve behind
Rybak making 16 tackles and an interception. The team's fastest corner,
he needs to play an even bigger role.
Watch Out For ... the secondary to be a little bit
better. This is the one area of the team with quality reserves and a
little bit of experience. Now the production has to come.
Strength: Tackling. Everyone can come up with the open
field stop against the run and everyone can be physical. The safeties
Weakness: Can anyone cover? The corners got ripped apart last
year and Rybak might not be a number one.
Outlook: The secondary was awful last season
having major problems against any quarterback who could hit an open
receiver. Considering the Mountain West is full of spread offense
passers who can make the short-to-midrange throws, there had better be
some major improvements. The lack of a pass rush was a major issue, but
that didn't matter when teams were able to dink and dunk. Overall
experience has to count for something.
The emergence of junior placekicker Ryan Harrison in spring ball
was a big plus replacing Zach Sasser, who hit 9 of 14 field goals.
Harrison, who missed all of last year for the nebulous "violation of
Academy standards," has a nice enough leg to be used from 40 yards, but
being consistent from medium range will be the key. Harrison will also
serve as the punter taking over for Sasser, who did a decent job of
blasting it but didn't do nearly enough pinning teams deep.
Watch Out For ... Harrison to be more than fine in
place of Sasser. He has the leg to do a little of everything well and
should add more pop to the punting game.
Strength: Kickoff coverage. Among the best in America
last year, the new coaching staff can only dream about allowing
opponents to average just 13.4 yards per return.
Weakness: The return game. Chris Sutton did a good job last year
and now he's gone. The kickoff returns were almost non-existent
averaging 17.8 yards per try.
Outlook: With all the things the coaches have to
work on, improving the special teams might have to take a back seat.
Considering the offense is based around running the ball (at least
somewhat) and the defense needs good field position, everything about
the special teams needs an upgrade.