Play of Air Force QB Arion Worthman has Mountain West's attention
By BRENT BRIGGEMAN | The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Published: August 1, 2017
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (Tribune News Service) — Colorado State didn’t play during the final week of October last season, so on that Friday night coach Mike Bobo watched a high school game.
While returning, Bobo listened as Air Force fell behind at Fresno State. He arrived at home in time to catch the second half on television.
Bobo knew he was watching something transformative when Arion Worthman entered the game, ran for 100 second-half yards and engineered a come-from-behind victory.
“I was texting my staff saying, ‘We might be in trouble boys,’” Bobo said.
Colorado State was indeed in trouble. Two weeks later the Falcons' Worthman-led offense ran for 485 yards and seven touchdowns in beating the Rams 49-46.
Air Force begins fall camp on Aug. 4 in what, if not for Worthman, would be looked upon as a rebuilding season. The defense loses 10 starters, including All-American safety Weston Steelhammer. The offense loses its all-time leading receiver in Jalen Robinette, a 3,000-yard rusher in Jacobi Owens and a pair of fullbacks who combined for 33 career touchdowns.
But with the junior Worthman back – along with key weapons Tim McVey, Tyler Williams, Ronald Cleveland and Ryan Reffitt – the Falcons figure to be in position to mask plenty of growing pains.
“If you look at successful teams, I don’t care if it’s college, NFL or high school, you’re probably getting some good play from your quarterback,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
Worthman’s 4.4 speed and stout, 5-foot-11, 201-pound build provided a jolt last year as Air Force closed with six straight victories. In his five starts he averaged 114 rushing yards, 106 passing yards, had a hand in seven touchdowns and helped the offense average 38.6 points.
According to ESPN's Raw Quarterback Rating, Worthman ranked 13th nationally among quarterbacks with at least five starts. In those rankings he was sandwiched between Louisville's Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson at No. 12, and No. 14 Jake Browning, who led Washington into the College Football Playoff.
“His strengths are that he is strong, physically and mentally,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “He’s bright. He’s a good worker. He’s a humble guy who really wants to play well.”
Praise for Worthman should not be misconstrued as criticism of the man he replaced, Nate Romine.
Since his sophomore season, Romine has led the Falcons to an 8-3 record as a starter. Included was a victory over No. 21 Colorado State in 2014 – one of the program’s best moments in a decade under Calhoun – and a dominant 28-14 win against Navy last year in which Romine threw for 257 yards and three touchdowns.
The only losses with Romine at the helm in that span came last year at Wyoming (a road game against the Mountain Division champs that hinged on a fourth-quarter 2-point conversion fail), a neutral site loss to New Mexico (where the offense put up 40 points and Romine threw for 280 yards), and a double overtime loss to Hawaii that the Falcons could have won with a 32-yard field goal at the end of regulation.
In most circumstances, the buzz heading into the camp would be the excitement of having Romine back for a fifth season. Instead, he provides the Falcons with the most capable backup in the conference, and perhaps the best of any program outside the Power Five.
“They seem to be more of true option team (with Worthman),” New Mexico coach Bob Davie observed. “(Romine) was more of a thrower, and I think that intrigued them. (Worthman) looks like the true power-running option quarterback, and because of that it seems like they do what they do best. Particularly with the big receiver (Jalen Robinette) gone, maybe that’s what they’ll do.”
Davie likened Air Force’s situation to the one his team faced last year, as it vacillated between the run-first Lamar Jordan and the pass-first Austin Apodaca at quarterback. Apodaca took the bulk of snaps in a devastating early loss to New Mexico State in which the running game sputtered, and Jordan largely handled the position during an 8-2 finish to the season.
“We are what we are,” Davie said. “The two quarterback thing is a blessing and a curse.”
It’s an outdated view to say Air Force’s offense can’t produce through the air. Karson Roberts threw for 550 yards over two weeks in 2015 victories over Utah State and Boise State. Roberts and Romine combined for 19 touchdown passes over the final six games of that season and the first six of 2016.
But while Air Force can at times be good through the air, it is elite when the ground game is churning to its full potential. The Falcons are 14-1 since 2014 when rushing for 350 yards or four touchdowns, and it would have been 15-0 had that kick against Hawaii split the uprights. The team is 14-11 when failing to reach one of those marks. In Worthman’s five starts Air Force has averaged 352 rushing yards with four rushing touchdowns.
“You have to get the ball out of his hands and make him hand it to the fullback or pitch the ball,” San Diego State coach Rocky Long said. “Don’t let him carry it.”
That proved easier said than done last year. And this season, Worthman will be handed the opportunity to carry the entire team.