February 22, 2011

Air Force missing a key piece on offense

This is the time of year when quarterback competitions dominate the discussions at many college campuses.

Not Air Force.

Here, the fullback is the center of attention.

Air Force returns one of the Mountain West Conference's top quarterbacks in Tim Jefferson. The Falcons also have 1,000-yard rusher Asher Clark at tailback. But the Falcons still don't know the identity of their starting fullback.

Jared Tew and Nathan Walker have completed their eligibility after rushing for a combined 1,069 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Their departures leave Air Force without any proven fullbacks. Air Force's spring practice should help sort out a wide-open competition for the starting job.

Here's a look at where Air Force stands as it heads into spring practice.

AIR FORCE AT-A-GLANCE
Tim Jefferson returns at quarterback for the Falcons.
THE BASICS
COACH: Troy Calhoun
LAST SEASON: 9-4 overall, 5-3 Mountain West Conference. Defeated Georgia Tech 14-7 in the Independence Bowl.
SPRING DATES: Feb. 23-March 16
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
OFFENSE (6): TB Asher Clark, C Michael Hester, WR Mikel Hunter, QB Tim Jefferson, T Jason Kons, G A.J. Wallerstein. DEFENSE (6): LB Brady Amack, S Jon Davis, T Ryan Gardner, E Zach Payne, LB Jordan Waiwaiole, CB Anthony Wright. SPECIAL TEAMS (1): K Erik Soderberg.
POSITIONS OF STRENGTH: Tim Jefferson gives Air Force arguably the MWC's best quarterback not named Kellen Moore. Jefferson rushed for 794 yards and 15 touchdowns while averaging 5.2 yards per carry last season. He also threw for 1,459 yards and 10 touchdowns with six interceptions, though he only completed 51.6 percent of his passes. The Falcons also return TB Asher Clark, who rushed for 1,031 yards and five touchdowns last season while averaging 5.7 yards per carry. Air Force should remain solid in the secondary despite losing Reggie Rembert, who earned first-team All-MWC honors in each of the past two seasons. S Jon Davis and CB Anthony Wright give Air Force two returning starters in the secondary, while S Brian Lindsay and S Anthony Wooding were part-time starters last season.

HELP IS NEEDED: Fullback clearly is the biggest concern as Air Force attempts to replace Jared Tew and Nathan Walker. Air Force doesn't have any proven performers to take over, though the return of Jefferson and Clark should help the Falcons continue to run the ball effectively while the new fullback gains experience. Air Force also needs to shore up its special teams. Erik Soderberg went just 5-of-10 on field-goal attempts last season, and the Falcons must find a new punter to replace the departed Kevin Bartholomew.

3 GUYS TO WATCH

OLB Jamil Cooks: As a freshman backup last season, Cooks showed his big-play ability on special teams. He blocked a punt and a field-goal attempt to spearhead Air Force's first win over Navy since 2002. He also blocked an extra-point attempt against Colorado State and recovered two onside kicks. Cooks should move into the starting lineup this fall as Air Force replaces departed senior starters Patrick Hennessey and Andre Morris Jr. at outside linebacker.

LB Jordan Waiwaiole: The graduation of CB Reggie Rembert should allow Waiwaiole to emerge as Air Force's defensive leader this season. He led the Falcons with 96 total tackles last season while making a seamless transition from outside linebacker to inside linebacker. Waiwaiole made at least eight tackles in four of his last five games. He could reach the 100-tackle mark this fall.

WR Jonathan Warzeka: Although Warzeka led the Falcons with 406 receiving yards last season, he should have an even larger role this season. He showed plenty of big-play ability by averaging 22.6 yards per catch last season, and he also can go in motion and carry the ball; Warzeka rushed for 312 yards on 41 carries last season. The situation at fullback could cause Warzeka to get even more carries this season.

THE PRESSURE IS ON

K Erik Soderberg: He went 5-of-10 on field goals last season and missed all four of his attempts from at least 40 yards out. His longest successful kick was from only 30 yards out. Soderberg briefly lost his job to Zack Bell, who has completed his eligibility. Bell's departure clears the way for Soderberg to open the season as Air Force's main kicker, but he likely will face another challenge if he doesn't improve his accuracy this spring.

THE BUZZ

Air Force has plenty of reason for optimism. The Falcons won the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 2002 and earned their second consecutive bowl victory last season. Now they return their two leading rushers from a team that ranked second nationally in rushing a year ago. The graduations of Tew, Rembert and DE Rick Ricketts leave Air Force with a few giant holes to fill, but the Falcons have reason to believe they could win at least nine games again. They have experience at quarterback and on the offensive line. They also have continuity on the coaching staff. The only staff change this year was the loss of running backs coach Jemal Singleton, now at Oklahoma State. Air Force coach Troy Calhoun hired former Vanderbilt running backs coach and offensive coordinator Des Kitchings as Singleton's replacement.

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.



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