Air Force concluded the 2016 season on a serious roll, winning six straight games while averaging 34 points a game.
A huge chunk of the talent that produced all that momentum has departed. The Falcons defense was shredded by graduation, leaving a roster filled with question marks. The offense should again confuse and expose opposing defenses, but could struggle to score enough points, especially early in the season, to carry the youthful defenders.
Coach Troy Calhoun has traveled to nine bowl games and recorded eight winning seasons in his first decade leading the Falcons.
Is bowl trip No. 9 on the horizon?
Here are three issues to consider before answering that question.
1 – Will Tim McVey thrive while carrying a heavy load?
In a way, Tim McVey’s last two seasons have been a tantalizing tease. His numbers are dazzling. He’s scored 19 rushing touchdowns on only 136 carries. Last season, he rushed for 708 yards on only 83 carries.
But he’s never been the lead actor in Air Force's backfield. Last season, McVey shared carries with Jacobi Owens, who graduated.
What can McVey do with 200-plus carries, a possible if not quite probable workload for the lead tailback in Calhoun’s offense? Remember, Owens averaged 205 carries in 2014-15.
We might find out this season.
McVey has recorded his stunning numbers without carrying the burden of being the lead target of a defense. He’s enjoying the luxury of being a cameo performer.
That luxury is gone.
The Air Force backfield was jammed with experienced talent last season. That experience has evaporated, leaving McVey as the lead candidate to serve as Arion Worthman’s lead sidekick.
Or, maybe, it will be Worthman as the lead sidekick. McVey has shown flashes of brilliance. He’s fast, elusive and dangerous out of the backfield on passes.
No Air Force runner has ever busted the 1,500 mark. (Beau Morgan came close in 1996 with 1,494 yards.) McVey has a shot to soar past 1,500 this season.
2 – Can the defense grow up, quickly?
From Sept. 16 to Oct. 7, Air Force’s inexperienced and questionable defense will face Michigan, San Diego State, New Mexico and Navy. On paper, all four games are filled with potential for defensive disaster.
Defensive coordinator Steve Russ lost 12 of his top 13 tacklers from last season. Calhoun enjoys reminding everyone that Air Force ranked 129th – out of 130 teams – in the number of returning tackles.
It’s not all gloom. Nose guard Mosese Fifita has the look of a rampaging star, and safety Kyle Floyd boasts the potential to dominate.
The challenges will come quickly. The offense, under Worthman’s direction, will often bust the 30-point barrier. The question for the 2017 season is how often the defense can keep opponents under the 30-point barrier.
3 – How much will the Falcons, and Calhoun, miss departed offensive line coach Clay Hendrix?
For a decade, Hendrix (no relation to Jimi) stood quietly at Air Force football practices. He usually was too lost in details to speak.
Well, most of the time he was silent.
If one of his linemen stood two inches – and we’re talking literally here – out of position, Hendrix would depart his silence and start shouting.
“Well, yeah,” Hendrix once told in the drawl of his native Georgia, “I am pretty particular when it comes to a lot of little things. When you’re at a lot of disadvantages, that’s how you compete. You’ve got to be great at the little things.”
Hendrix has returned to Furman, his alma mater, to serve as head coach. His offensive line was the key to the Falcons rushing for more than 4,000 yards four times since 2011. Steed Lobotzske faces the enormous task of trying to replace Hendrix, who kind of seems irreplaceable.
Assistants tend to be anonymous, which is too bad. They are vitally important to the health of a football program. They make a massive difference.
In three seasons from 2007-09, defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter helped the Falcons hold opponents to fewer than 20 points 12 times. In the three seasons (2010-12) after DeRuyter departed, the Falcons held opponents to fewer than 20 points six times, or half as often. DeRuyter’s departure drained the defense of power.
Hendrix, Mr. Detail, set a standard. Lobotzke will seek to meet that standard in his debut season as leader of the offensive line. Good luck, Steed.