In sports, there’s paper and then there’s reality.
On paper, Air Force’s defense looks depleted after losing 12 of its top 13 tacklers. The Falcons open the season Saturday with one of the most inexperienced group of defenders in the history of the football program, which dates to 1956. If that last sentence sounds scary, it’s because it is scary.
Santo Coppola, Air Force’s senior defensive end, believes his comrades can set fire to the paper and surprise skeptics. The surprising can start in earnest Sept. 16 when the Falcons confront Jim Harbaugh and more than 100,000 fans at Michigan’s Big House.
“If you look at us on paper, people are going to ask questions, but I have no questions,” Coppola says. “We’re ready."
He pauses before delivering this week’s theme song for the Falcons.
“We’re ready for VMI,” he says. “We’re not looking past anybody. All we’re thinking about is VMI.”
Coach Troy Calhoun, defensive coordinator Steve Russ and all other Falcons say the same thing. They are bracing for the fierce challenge that is Virginia Military Institute, which ended the 2016 season on a six-game losing streak. The Falcons play host to VMI at noon Saturday.
Air Force’s offense, led by quarterback Arion Worthman, should be humming this season. With Worthman running the option, Air Force bolted to 30 points five times and 40 points three times during a season-ending six-game winning streak.
For the Falcons to win, say, eight games and return to a bowl game, the defense will not have to rise to magnificence. The defense must hold opponents under 30 points.
Since 2012, Air Force has earned 36 victories. The Falcons roared to a 29-7 record when the defense held opponents under 30 points. It’s no surprise the team tumbled to a 7-22 record when it surrendered 30 or more points.
Most see a defense ransacked and diminished by graduation. Every day in practice, Coppola sees a different scenario. He watches teammates who spent last season watching from the sideline. They hungered for a chance.
Now, the chance is here.
“We don’t have returning 10 starters, but we have guys who have played,” Coppola says. “They’ve been in the mix. They’ve been in the fire. Yes, we do have some young guys, but the thing I like is they’re talented and they’re flying around.”
Translation: Flying around means the youthful Falcons play with hustle and abandon and confidence.
After practice, Russ talks in a tone of optimism and realism. He took over as coordinator in 2014, immediately after the Disaster of 2013, when the Falcons surrendered more than 30 points eight times and finished with two wins and 10 losses.
Since Russ was promoted, the Falcons are 28-12. This transformation is not a coincidence.
“You ride the fine line of hopeful and realistic,” Russ says. “You can talk yourself one way or the other. I try to stay down the middle of that line. We’re pushing the guys as hard as they can be pushed, but a lot of these guys don’t know what they don’t know because they haven’t played.”
And that’s where the mystery arrives. You never know what a seldom-used defender will do when he steps on the field with the blessing and burden of playing time.
Linebacker Jordan Pierce towered as the defensive star of the happy surprise that was the 2014 season. Hampered by injury, he seldom played his first three seasons. As a senior, Pierce transformed. The frustrated bench-sitter grew into the vicious, hustling soul of the team.
Russ hopes for – and requires - several such surprises in 2017.