Aug. 8, 2002
By Bob Wallace
As another autumn approaches, one question is foremost on the minds of the Air Force football faithful: Will the Falcons rebound from last year's disappointing 6-6 record?
If history is anything to go by, the answer is, yes. The non-winning record was only the third for Air Force since coach Fisher DeBerry, now entering his 19th season, took over in 1984. After a 5-7 record in 1988 and a 4-8 record in 1993, the Falcons went 8-4-1 in 1989 and 8-4 in 1994. The Falcons haven't had back-to-back losing seasons since 1980- 81.
If appearances are anything to go by, the answer is still, yes. In typical Air Force fashion, the Falcons are eager to put last year behind them. This year's team seems solely focused on making a play, on every play.
"The idea of us losing more games than we wanted to," said junior safety Jeff Overstreet, "and surrendering so many points, I think everybody came in with the attitude that, we don't want to lose any games. We don't want to lose a lift, we don't want to lose an AFTPT score, we want to pass all our classes with flying colors.
"We want to play big, work big, and win big."
The Falcons return a Mountain West Conference-low 10 starters (three offense, seven defense) from last year's team which will feature many new faces on offense and a new scheme for an experienced defensive unit.
Junior quarterback Chance Harridge will join third-year starter halfback Leotis Palmer in the backfield to run the Falcons multi-option attack. Palmer, a 5-foot-8-inch, 175-pound senior, is the leading returning rusher, having gained 516 yards and three touchdowns on 106 carries last season. Sophomore Anthony Butler will start at the other halfback position, while Dan Shaffer and Cedric Adams will likely share time at fullback.
Last season, Air Force completed only 48 percent of its passes. While the Falcons aren't abandoning their rushing attack, which perennially finishes in the top-five in NCAA Division I, there will be renewed emphasis on the increasing pass efficiency to help spread the defense and open up more room for the run.
"We have to be at 60 percent completion rate with our intermediate routes and underneath routes," Harridge said. "As long as we're completing passes underneath and moving the ball we're going to be a successful offense. We're going to loosen guys up and we're going to start creating mismatches and that's what we're supposed to do in the option offense."
The biggest question mark on the offense will be the line, which returns only senior guard Brett Huyser, who made five starts last season.
The defense returns seven starters from a young unit that felt acute growing pains last season, surrendering an average of 32.2 points per game, including 52 at New Mexico and 63 at BYU. To better counteract the pass, the Falcons will employ a defensive scheme consisting of three linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs.
"Football has gotten to be a lot like basketball," DeBerry said. "It's a match-up game. You don't substitute so much. By getting five defensive backs on the field in our basic scheme and then by having three linebackers on the field I think we'll be able to adapt whether its a run game or pass game."
Coincidentally -- or not -- the secondary is the most experienced area of the defense. Overstreet, considered by many to be the best pure-athlete on the team, will see action at both free safety and cornerback. Before tearing a tendon in his ankle four games into the 2001 season, Overstreet had averaged 12 tackles per game.
Overstreet will be joined by third-year starters Wes Crawley (57 tackles, 3 INTs in 2001) at cornerback, and Joel Buelow (31 tackles), who was moved from cornerback to Falcon. Sophomore Mark Marsh will start at the other Falcon spot, with senior Paul Mayo (35 tackles, 1 INT) at the other cornerback spot. Junior Larry Duncan, who had three interceptions last season will also fit into the mix at either corner or safety.
At linebacker, Anthony Schlegel, who made six starts last season, and Trevor Hightower have provided the intensity and willingness to make big plays, that at times, the defense lacked last season. On almost every play in practice scrimmages, the defense's furious pursuit seems to emanate outward from Schlegel, at 6-foot-2 inches, 245 pounds and Hightower, at 5-foot-11, 225 pounds, culminating in a crushing tackle.
"Last year when it came time to make plays we didn't make the big play when we should have," Schlegel said. "I think that everybody knows what they have got to do, and when it comes time, when it's third and short or fourth and goal, the good thing is that everybody wants to make that play. When you've got 11 guys that want to make that play, somebody's going to make it."
In an effort to put more speed on the field defensively, junior Monty Coleman was moved from linebacker to defensive end for this season. Coleman recorded 41 tackles in seven starts last season. He will be joined by senior Eric Thompson at the other end, and junior Nicholas Taylor at nose guard.
Kicking is another question mark for the Falcons. Sophomore Joey Ashcroft and senior John Welsh have the inside track at kicker and punter respectively. But neither has been impressive enough yet to cinch the starting spot. Air Force kickers, including Ashcroft, combined to miss five field goals in the spring Blue/Silver game.
Air Force should benefit from a favorable schedule, which features seven home games, including the season-opener against Northwestern Aug. 31, as well as Notre Dame (Oct. 19), Colorado State (Oct. 31), BYU (Oct. 12), and New Mexico (Sept. 7).
The timeliness of some key matchups also benefits the Falcons. They will travel to California (Sept. 21) a week after the Golden Bears return from a tough road game at Michigan State, and will host Notre Dame (Oct. 19) a week before the Irish travel to Florida State.
The early test against New Mexico, which has beaten Air Force the previous three years, might likely serve as a barometer for the rest of the season.
In preseason projections, the Falcons, who return 10 starters, have been picked to finish anywhere from the middle of the pack (fourth or fifth) to dead last in the conference and 2-10 overall by collegefootballnews.com.
"The fourth and fifth in the conference thing is a deal we're pretty much used to, and it is motivation," Blew said. "But the no wins (in conference) the two wins over the whole the season, that's definitely motivation for us. We think that we have something so special there's absolutely no way we can just sit back and let that slide."
"It'll be determined when we line up, not on paper or in the stats," Harridge said.