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David Ramsey: Air Force football offense will soar, if Arion Worthman learns to share

March 19, 2018 Updated: March 20, 2018 at 7:30 am
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Air Force quarterback Arion Worthman, front, eludes a tackle by Army defensive back Gibby Gibson in the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, at Air Force Academy, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Air Force’s offense was predictable last season, largely because Arion Worthman, who has talent deluxe, was predictable. He kept the ball in his own hands too often on the option. He missed open receivers.

Worthman is dangerous. No doubt about that. But if defenses could stop him, they could suffocate Air Force’s attack. Just ask Army’s Black Knights, who swarmed Worthman and delivered a humiliating Nov. 4 shutout at Falcon Stadium.

The Falcons tumbled to a 5-7 record last season, missed a bowl game (remember, it’s kind of tough to play in the Mountain West and miss a bowl game) and inspired honest fans to wonder if the gloom will lift in 2018.

A moment from spring practice offered a hint of better days for coach Troy Calhoun, offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen and Worthman.

Receiver Ronald Cleveland was sent on a deep curl route. Defensive back Kyle Floyd, a wise player, quickly recognized the play. Floyd essentially became Cleveland’s blanket on the play. He had his teammate utterly covered.

“I looked back at Arion and thought there is no way he can get this ball in, with me right there,” Floyd says.

Floyd is a proud young man, and in a way he dislikes sharing what happened next. But he’s also a devoted teammate.

“Arion stuck it in there, right past my hands,” Floyd says.

He shakes his head and smiles. Floyd realizes a more accurate Worthman will produce a more powerful Air Force.

During spring practice, Floyd has seen dozens of similar plays. Air Force defenders tightly cover Air Force receivers, and Worthman still completes the pass.

“Man, he’s been putting some balls on the money,” Floyd says. “And he’s been putting it in there consistently all spring.”

In 2017, Worthman’s completion percentage tumbled from 59 percent to 49.5 percent. His lowly percentage came during a college football era when QBs deliver soaring completion percentages. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield completed just over 70 percent of his passes in his final two seasons.

Worthman, meanwhile, missed open receivers and failed to see open receivers.

Missed passing opportunities have not been the only problem. Missed sharing opportunities have drained the Air Force offense, too.

Few quarterbacks in Air Force’s history have run with Worthman’s power, desire and speed, but virtually all Air Force quarterbacks of the four-decade option era have been superior in pitching the ball to fellow runners/cadets.

During the Calhoun era, which started in 2007,  quarterbacks have worked more as distributors than as runners. No QB averaged more than 14 carries until Worthman, who has averaged nearly 22 carries per start. That number must drop for the attack to thrive.

Air Force finished third last season in the three-team race to rule service-academy football.

What happened?

The defense allowed 28 or more points in 10 of the final 11 games.

But here’s another number to consider:

Running back Tim McVey had only 128 carries, and he should have been blessed with at least 50 more. (I would say 100 more carries, but McVey struggled with a foot injury.) The McVey threat was strangely underused because the ball remained in Worthman’s hands.

Meanwhile, Worthman has watched as his own danger was reduced. As a sophomore, he rampaged to 5.2 yards per carry. I believed he could reign as a junior last season as the Mountain West’s premier offensive player.

Instead, he averaged 3.8 yards per carry. On a sunny Saturday in November, Army exposed all the limits of Air Force’s limited offense.

His talent, which is considerable, hasn’t gone anywhere. Worthman boasts the gifts and work ethic to revive the Falcons.

But, as a passer and option operator, he must become better at sharing.

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