To keep wins coming, Air Force Falcons face ‘significant rebuilding’ in 2023
Stars and Stripes August 18, 2023
The last three full football seasons arguably have been the best in the history of the U.S. Air Force Academy. The Falcons won at least 10 games, finished no worse than second in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference and claimed bowl victories in all three.
Excluding the COVID-shortened 2020 season, when the Falcons finished 3-3, the recent records are:
While that run of sustained success has become somewhat regular during the Troy Calhoun era in Colorado Springs, Air Force is facing some unprecedented turnover heading into 2023. Keeping it alive will require the services of many new faces.
The triple option scheme that has been an integral part of service academy football for decades is heavily reliant on the run game, reflected by the Falcons’ 326.7 rushing yards per game last season, the only mark in the Football Bowl Subdivision above 290.
However, five of their top six rushers — who accounted for more than two-thirds of their 4,247 yards — are gone, including quarterback Haaziq Daniels and Brad Roberts, the nation’s leading individual rusher. Beyond that, just two starting offensive linemen are back, and the Falcons will be without their two most productive receivers from 2022.
“This is one of the more significant rebuilding years that we’ve had since we’ve been here,” said Calhoun, who is entering his 17th season as head coach.
Two seniors on offense gathered preseason all-conference nods from the media — running back John Lee Eldridge, whose 7.7 yards per carry led all qualified runners in 2022, and center Thor Paglialong, who started all 13 games for the Falcons last year.
On defense, junior nose guard Payton Zdroik and senior safety Trey Taylor also received all-conference recognition. Zdroik recorded 30 tackles, 5½ sacks and a fumble recovery last season, and he is the only returning starter on the defensive line. Taylor led Air Force with 69 tackles, adding a sack and a pair of interceptions.
That duo leads a group of six regular starters returning including safeties Jayden Goodwin and Camby Goff, cornerback Eian Castonguay and inside linebacker Alec Mock, all of whom are seniors. In 2022, they led the Falcons to post Mountain West-lows in yards and points allowed per game at 254.4 and 13.4, respectively, under first-year defensive coordinator Brian Knorr.
Carson Bay and Matthew Dapore will be back for their junior seasons after handling punting and kicking duties last season, but Air Force will have to fill the roles of kick and punt returners. Although it returned just five kicks and four punts, none of the four players who recorded stats are back.
“This is a squad that’s going to take us a good number of weeks, maybe months just as far as growth and development,” Calhoun said.
Despite the uncertainty that hangs over the 2023 Falcons, a media panel predicted them to finish second in the Mountain West, behind Boise State. Two of the 36 voters had them winning the conference, compared with 28 who picked the Broncos.
“The Mountain West championship is our total focus. That’s our No. 1 goal this season,” Paglialong said at the Mountain West Conference media day.
Confidence of success may come from the track record of offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen, who joined the Air Force coaching staff with Calhoun in 2007 and took over his current role in 2014. The Falcons have been among the top seven FBS teams in rushing every year since then, and they have led the country in each of the last three. Only thrice during that stretch have they failed to eclipse 300 rushing yards per game.
“You want to have continuity somewhere, and if it’s not necessarily on the field, then we are lucky to have it certainly on our coaching staff,” Calhoun said.
Ten wins will be tough to replicate for the Falcons, as will holding onto the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy, which they won in 2022 after prevailing in low-scoring affairs against Navy and Army. The top priority, Calhoun said, is to see his team play well against every opponent.
“If you ever again could get to six wins and get to a bowl game, that’d be a tremendous achievement,” Calhoun said. “Can that be this year? I guess we’ll find out.”
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