August 16, 2011
Very quietly this past offseason, Air Force added a special teams coordinator position to its coaching staff.
The Falcons didn’t hire a new coach, but tight ends coach Ben Miller added the title. He already worked with the punters, kickers and snappers and his responsibilities didn’t change much, other than overseeing kickoff returners, so on the surface, it wasn’t a big deal.
“The title doesn’t mean a whole lot other than it looks nice on my business card, because as coaches we’re all involved in it,” Miller said.
Troy Calhoun didn’t make much of Miller’s promotion either, but in a way it might be a sign of Air Force’s commitment to improving special teams this year.
Calhoun hired Brian Schneider in early 2007 to be his special teams coordinator. When Schneider left before the season, Calhoun didn’t replace him but had all of his assistants share the special teams duties. The Falcons assistants still split the duties, but now Miller will coordinate the efforts. And Air Force is hoping for better results.
Some things Air Force did on special teams last year were good. Jonathan Warzeka established himself as an elite kickoff returner, and was named preseason Mountain West special teams player of the year last month. The Falcons finished a respectable 18th in the nation in net punting, thanks in part to quarterback Tim Jefferson’s fourth-down quick kicks. Air Force is breaking in a new punter, David Baska, but he has had a solid camp.
However, Calhoun wants to see a significant improvement in kickoff coverage. He lightened the load on the kickers this year, not asking for as much directional kicking, which can lead to too many short kicks or kickoffs going out of bounds. He wants more consistency out of them this season.
And Calhoun also wants more aggression out of the players running down to cover those kickoffs. Air Force was 56th in the nation in kickoff return average allowed last season.
“I thought we were robots running down covering a kickoff,” Calhoun said. “That’s a unit where you need to have guys that realize that’s the one time the screws don’t have to be tight upstairs and they can cut it loose a little bit.”
The Falcons also need more reliability out of the field-goal unit. Erik Soderberg had a tough 2010 season and was benched. He has kicked well in camp, but is in a position battle with Parker Herrington. Calhoun said last week there is “no separation” in that race.
Air Force doesn’t want its special teams to be the weak link, especially with plenty of talent returning on offense and defense.
“Special teams is a big emphasis right now,” Herrington said. “Our offense and defense, they’ve proven themselves. The special teams is what we need to focus on.”