Published: August 22, 2013
Joey Nichol made 12 tackles for Air Force last year. He can't recall being greeted by a celebrating teammate after any of them.
Now that he's one of the defense's leaders, that was one of the first things he changed.
"That's what I missed last year," said Nichol, a junior starting middle linebacker. "You know, I just didn't see that celebration and that energy. I see that here and it's exciting."
Air Force has made no major changes to its defensive scheme and will continue to line up in its base 3-4 look with a similar set of blitzes and stunts. However, it hopes new personnel on the field and in coaching positions - and the overwhelming energy that those changes has created - will be enough to overcome struggles that plagued it last year.
The unit in 2012 ranked 74th in total defense and 99th against the run. The run numbers are a bit skewed, as Air Force played four teams - Army, Navy, Nevada and New Mexico - that ranked among the nation's top 10 on the ground. Still, among Mountain West teams, only Hawaii and UNLV, who went a combined 4-22, gave up more than Air Force's 26 rushing touchdowns. Over the two-game losing streak that ended the season, the Falcons were torched for 1,106 yards and 81 points against Fresno State and Rice.
The first changes came in the coaching staff. Defensive line coach Ron Burton left for the same position at Michigan State, leading to a shift that essentially saw assignments shift one spot closer to the line of scrimmage. Matt Weikert went from coaching linebackers to the defensive line. Steve Russ went from the secondary to linebackers and Charlton Warren went from coordinating the defense but not coaching a position to again working with the secondary. This put Russ and Warren back at spots they consider their home base.
Then came the changes in the lineup. Five starters returned from last year, but at this point only defensive linemen Alex Hansen and Joseph Champaign, cornerback Steffon Batts and safety Christian Spears are back in a starting role. Competition brought about changes atop the depth chart both in the spring (where Gavin McHenry supplanted Chris Miller at one corner spot) and here in August (safety Jamal Byrd and linebacker Spencer Proctor both nailed down jobs).
Each of the newcomers in the starting lineup has seen game action in the past.
"The energy is coming from, 'I don't have to think before the ball is snapped. I know exactly what I am doing,'" Warren said.
The Falcons believe the overall talent has taken a step forward despite a group that includes twice as many sophomores (four) as seniors (two) in starting roles.
Talent alone may fix many of the problems.
"Tackling has been a huge issue," said Russ, the co-defensive coordinator. "When we get into position to make plays, we need to make plays. That's a team thing, it's not a linebacker thing or a DB thing; it's a defensive thing. We need to put people down when we have a chance."
Perhaps that's why the defense is having such a hard time applying the brakes, even when they are so instructed.
"In practice they have to tell us to stay up, because we want to take the offense to the ground," Byrd said. "We're definitely fired up."
How a fired-up, energetic approach translates into on-field success remains to be seen, but there's little doubt that Air Force is having a good time on that side of the ball. And as Nichol pointed out, that's the first difference from last season.
"We're running around, making plays, screaming, hooting and hollering," Proctor said. 'That's what's you want to see on a defense, is that rush."
The rush last season belonged quite literally to the opposition. That may not be the case this year.