The question that will define Air Force’s 2018 football team is simple, weighty and troubling.
Will the defense start playing, well, defense?
We’ll get an early preview of the answer. On Sept. 8, the Falcons travel to Boca Raton, Fla., to face the Owls of Florida Atlantic University.
The Owls are coached by the ultra-irritating Lane Kiffin, who failed to make many friends at stops with the Raiders, Tennessee and Alabama. He might have failed to make any friends.
But Kiffin is an offensive genius. He would be the first to say so, but truth is truth. He knows how to design offenses that gobble up yards and set scoreboards ablaze.
The Owls scored 30 or more points in their last 11 games of 2017. They scored 50 or more four times. They averaged 40.6 points.
But wait Air Force fans: It gets even more discouraging.
Devin “Motor” Singletary served as leader of this offensive rampage, rushing for 1,920 yards, 32 touchdowns and 6.4 yards per carry. “Motor” was a dazzling high school star in Florida, where the game is considered close to a religion.
But “Motor” looked more like the kid next door than an elite running back. As a high school senior, he stood 5-foot-9 and weighed 165 pounds (maybe) and did not look ready for a close encounter with a 315-pound nose guard. Big-time college coaches ignored him.
I promise you Air Force coaches will not ignore the “Motor,” who has bulked up to 200 pounds. Defensive coaches will spend the entire summer seeking ways to shut him down.
The battle in Boca will reveal much about this team. The Falcons' offense looks ready to hum. Quarterback Arion Worthman is healthy and looks ready to – finally – share the ball with his fellow backs. Air Force’s offense was far too Worthman-centric in 2017. A more aware and generous Worthman can push his team to 40-point performances.
The defense remains hazy. Going into 2017, Air Force defenders were spectacularly inexperienced, largely because the defenders of the 2016 season were so experienced and talented. The 2017 defense had to recover from the loss of 12 of the top 13 tacklers.
Those 2017 defenders never grew up.
The Falcons allowed 28 points or more in 10 of their final 11 games. The Falcons “held” Army to 21 points, but surrendered 392 yards rushing. The Falcons scored a combined 83 points against New Mexico and Navy and lost both games.
Worst of all, the defense allowed opponents to average 5.93 yards per carry, worst in the nation. Remember, the Falcons will play run-obsessed Army and Navy again in 2018.
“That’s a high number,” coach Troy Calhoun says of 5.93. “You know, that is. That’s a high number.”
Coach, I agree with you. It is a high number.
It’s also an inspiring number, or can be an inspiring number. Being at the bottom of the nation can ignite a defense.
At least that’s how strong safety Garrett Kauppila sees it.
“I don’t think our run defense is as bad as that stat says, but too many small mistakes lead to things like that,” Kauppila says.
But he’s not running from the failures of 2017. His teammates aren’t running either.
“The guys that we have now, we’re playing together. We’re playing inspired,” he says. “We’ve got a lot to prove. We all know what our expectation is, and last year we didn’t meet that.”
On Tuesday, Kauppila and his fellow defenders were battling under Calhoun’s watchful eye. Kauppila swears this is an entirely different defense.
We’ll see in September.
Remember, the “Motor” is waiting in Boca.