"The Professor," or "Doc" as he is known to everyone who has met him or seeks to bask in the warmth and glow of his legendary knowledge of college football, was at his loquacious best on this summer morning. For the record, the professorial moniker is, to be sure, titular rather than one earned through exhaustive study. Upon the occasion of his retirement from coach Vince Drooling's staff at Georgia Massive State (Macon Campus) in 1985, in a ceremony befitting a man of his dignity, the university bestowed upon him the honorary title of Professor Emeritus of Janitorial Sciences and Footballology. Transfixed by awe and respect as I was, I called him by his full title--Doctor Dee Tayle--for nearly the first half hour of our chat, until I was prompted to address him more familiarly.
GETTING DOWN TO BUSINESS. "So you're here to discuss AFA's football season in 2003 are you?" I acknowledged that I was and the ol' Prof told me that he didn't get many inquiries about service academy programs these days. He poured himself a post-breakfast Jim Beam chaser and offered me an Irish coffee--which I declined--before we dove head first into the topic of Fisher DeBerry and the Falcons.
"So Doc, how's Air Force look to you for the coming season?"
"Glad you asked. Since I knew you were coming for a visit I've been studying on that. The last regular season game the Falcons played in 2002 was against San Diego State. From the offense that took the field that day for Fisher's team, seven players return: QB Chance Harridge, FB Steve Massie, TE Adam Strecker, LT Brett Waller, LG Brett Huyser, RG Jesse Underbakke and RT Blane Neufeld."
I prompted the Professor that later in the 2002 season Neufeld had missed the bowl game against Virginia Tech due to a foot injury, but was assured by Doc that Neufeld was now healthy and would resume his spot in the offensive line.
"You know the Falcons are going to be loaded at the fullback spot this year with Steve Massie, Dan Shaffer and Adam Cole. Fisher's got himself a bit of a problem in that he'll be singing his old song that we have three starters at the position, not just one. That plays well for purposes of morale, but Fisher will find a way to mete out the majority of playing time to just a pair of those big ol' hosses of his."
"I'm impressed Doc. You've really done some homework on the Falcons."
"Aw, shoot. That ain't nothin'. You know if that offense does hit a rough patch in the road that kicker of theirs, Joey Ashcroft, has as good a leg as anyone in the MWC. That offense is gonna do just fine scoring points." "So the season's going to be a piece of cake for the Falcons?"
"Get the cotton out of your ears, son. I didn't say no sucha thing. Air Force always rises or sinks in relation to the performance of its defense. There are still six players who started against the Aztecs last year who are on the roster: LE Monte Coleman, NG Nicholas Taylor, ILB Trevor Hightower, ILB John Rudzinski, RC Jeff Overstreet and FS Larry Duncan."
"I notice you didn't mention any players at the Falcon back positions. Is your memory slipping or is breakfast starting to catch up with you?"
"Neither one. Falcon back is the mystery which defensive coordinator Richard Bell will need to unravel. The Falcons lost a terrific linebacker when Anthony Schlegel transferred to Ohio State, but almost everyone has forgotten the loss of Mark Marsh. He would have been a C2C (junior) this season, but won't be coming back to the squad. He started eight games for the Falcons last year. More importantly, two games in which he did not start due to injury, were games in which the Falcons were upset by inferior opponents: Wyoming and San Diego State. Marsh would have been the best Falcon back for Air Force this fall and he'll be missed."
"You're telling me that Marsh's absence left a significant void in AFA's defense during those two games?"
"I see no other way to explain how those two teams scored a total of seventy-two points against Air Force. Wyoming scored 34 and San Diego rang up 38. QBs Casey Bramlet and Lon Sheriff abused AFA's defensive bunch all day long. Those two completed 61 of 84 passes ( 72.6%) for 676 yards and 4 TDs. The middle of that secondary was softer than a marshmallow when Marsh was out with injuries. Coach Bell and his secondary coach, Vic Shealy, have some work to do this before the season begins. If Air Force can find two consistently hard-hitting, run-supporting, pass coverage efficient Falcon backs to solidify the middle of the secondary, then the defense will allow Fisher's club to challenge any team in the conference."
"And if a workable solution isn't forthcoming, what happens then, Doc?"
"Longtime Falcons' fans who've watched the days of the WAC and now the MWC are well equipped to answer that one. The teams with an established history of throwing the ball all over the lot will feast on Air Force yet again. Take a look at AFA's conference road schedule. With Fisher as head coach the team has never won a game in Provo. Oh sure, the home team has won plenty of games in the past several years and Air Force is starting to swing some of the momentum in the series in its favor, but Fisher has yet to win in Provo. The Falcons have to make another Thursday night trip to Fort Collins to play CSU. You ought to know that in Fisher's first nine years on the job as head coach at Air Force he and his teams went 7-2 against Colorado State. Since 1993--when Sonny Lubick joined the Rams--Fisher and the Falcons have gone 3-7 against CSU so the momentum in that series has changed. Late in the year AFA plays a pair of games on the road in Albuquerque and San Diego. Those contests may determine if the Falcons go to a bowl game, and if so, in which one they'll play. In their last two trips to New Mexico, Air Force has lost twice and surrendered 85 points. There's every reason to believe Air Force will beat San Diego State this season. Be sure to remind the good AFA fans with whom you speak, that's exactly what I thought last year as well and the Aztecs caught Air Force sleeping."
"Okay Doc, you've presented due cause for concern regarding the conference road schedule. You haven't mentioned Fisher's uncanny ability to produce wildly successful seasons in those years when a returning starting QB is at the controls of the offense. I can see Ernesto, the house-boy, is about to hand you a pre-lunch mint julep, so before you make that disappear and your blood-alcohol level starts to approximate the humidity readings in this lovely swath of Macon you call home, let me hear your thoughts on the Falcons' outlook with Chance Harridge running the show."
As he finished half his julep in an initial gulp, the professor launched into some remarks on AFA's success under veteran QBs in the DeBerry era. "Bart Weiss was the first one. In 1985, he led Fisher's team to a 12-1 record including a shocking win over Texas in the Bluebonnet Bowl. After that it wasn't until 1989 that AFA had a returning starter at QB. Dee Dowis led the team to an 8-4-1 record, but the squad lost the Liberty Bowl to Mississippi. In 1991, Rob Perez directed the team to a 10-3 record and a victory over Mississippi State in the Liberty Bowl. Beau Morgan struggled a bit in 1996, but still managed to drive the team to a winning record with a 6-5 mark and that included three point losses to Wyoming and Navy as well as a one point loss at home to CSU. There was no bowl game that year, and yet, if the Falcons had been able to score a few more points here and there a 6-5 record could have been transformed into a 9-2 record. That team is the last of Fisher's boys to have beaten Notre Dame, too. Beau's brother, Blane, was able to pull off one of the best seasons in Fisher's career during the 1998 campaign. The Falcons went 12-1, beat Washington in the Oahu Bowl and missed a perfect 13-0 mark by two points when LaDainian Thomlinson's TCU Horned Frogs team beat Air Force in Forth Worth, 35-34, the last week in September. Mike Thiessen was the last AFA QB to return as a starter having taken the job from Cale Bonds the previous year when Bonds suffered a severe high ankle sprain on the road against San Diego State. Thiessen led the Falcons to a strong 9-3 mark culminating with a 37-34 win over Fresno State in the initial Silicon Valley Classic. This fall, Chance Harridge has the opportunity to demonstrate that he's as elusive and efficient a runner as the Falcons have had since Dee Dowis was on campus. Fisher has had six previous returning starting QBs. Each of them produced a winning season. Five of them led the team to bowl berths. Four of them engineered bowl game victories."
"That's amazing Doc!"
"What's amazing? You mean AFA's record of success under returning quarterbacks?"
"No, I mean your ability to be so lucid when you're half in the bag from two bowls of bourbon soaked Cheerios, a Jim Beam chaser and a mint julep prelude to lunch. Is there anything else I can pass along to AFA fans from you before you slip into your customary midday coma?"
"In fact, there is something. AFA finally led the country in rushing last year and was impressive in doing so. But the performance of the ground game came with a price."
"And that is....?"
"Lack of depth. The OL started a total of only seven different players in the regular season. Strecker, Waller, Huyser, Underbakke and Neufeld each started every regular season game. John Peel and the now graduated Wayne Southam each started half a dozen games at center."
"Well, Doc, doesn't that bode well for the line's continuity this fall?"
"On one hand it does, but there's a catch. It's unlikely the group of five returning full time starters will have the unprecedented good luck of having two, straight complete seasons without sustaining severe injuries."
"So you're worried about depth behind the starters in the offensive line."
"Precisely. As long as the starters--along with centers Stephen Maddox, John Peel and Jon Wilson--stay healthy the offense should have no trouble moving the ball on the ground. HBs Anthony Butler, Darnell Stephens and the fleet Matt Ward should be able to move the ball at the perimeter of opposing defenses as was the case last year. When defenses stretch to protect the Falcons' outside speed the middle of the field will be more vulnerable to keepers by Harridge and AFA's stock in trade--the fullback game."
"Doc if it's true that the OL didn't develop much depth last year, in part, because of the exceptionally good health of the starters can't the same point be made of the AFA QB spot?"
"Indeed it can. Chance Harridge was the star of the show last year for Air Force. It's not merely a play on words to say that without Harridge at quarterback Air Force has no chance. No player took anything resembling a significant number of snaps in a game at QB because Harridge played when the outcome of every game hung in the balance. If Harridge is injured for any meaningful portion of the season the offense reverts to square one with essentially a rookie running the option for the first time in a college game."
"Your reputation as an eternal optimist is well known, Doc. Let's say Harridge stays healthy. How far do the Falcons go this season?"
"Fair question. Harridge will start the season as the fourteenth leading rusher in AFA history with 1,410 yards. If he duplicates that season he'll wind up with 2,820 yards for his career and will leave the academy as the third leading rusher in the school's history, just ahead of John Kershner, while trailing only Dee Dowis and Beau Morgan. If Harridge produces another season in which he averages over 100 yards a game on the ground the Falcons will be in good position to earn a bowl berth. But Chance's running won't really tell the story of his proficiency as a QB. His passing will do that. Fisher DeBerry has talked about the need for Harridge to raise his completion percentage ten points from last season."
"And if he does that then the Falcons can name the final score on a weekly basis, right Prof?"
"Not exactly. Harridge needs to be able to sustain drives by diversifying the offense. Offensive coordinator Chuck Petersen, Fisher DeBerry and even Harridge himself must determine which patterns are most conducive to his throwing abilities. Closed practices in the spring and a Blue-Silver game in which Harridge threw the ball only four times haven't revealed to the general public whether or not AFA has done a suitable job of tailoring its passing attack to the man who'll be leading it. AFA fans should be more concerned with Harridge's ability to keep opposing defenses off balance because of his ability to throw and complete passes rather than with the isolated statistic of the percentage of passes he completes. If the Falcons have a passing attack that truly is an air force, then they'll be able to score as many points in the MWC as any team."
"Doc, all of your assessments bring me back to concerns about AFA's defense. I assume that fans can expect typically strong play from LBs Monty Coleman, John Rudzinski and Trevor Hightower."
"Yes, they can. I'll give you another kid from whom you should expect exceptional play--Kenny Smith. If Coleman isn't fully recovered from off-season surgery, Smith has the ability to step into the starting lineup and more than hold his own at an OLB spot. He was a terror on special teams last year and even if Coleman is healthy there'll be no keeping Smith off the field for an entire game. Hightower and Rudzinski are the best pair of inside linebackers Air Force has had since 1998 when C. J. Zanotti and Craig Thorstenson were playing. The LBs and DBs won't get much sustained pass rush help from a three man front so you should still expect frequent zone blitz packages from the defense. I can't emphasize too strongly that the strength of this team's defense will be measured in direct proportion to the play of the Falcon backs. Adrian Wright will be one of the players you'll see getting plenty of playing time. The other spot is waiting for someone to step up and seize it."
"Who's in the running for that second spot right now?"
"It's a crapshoot. Grant Mallory and Denny Poland are two names to keep in mind. I suspect that even if one is named the starter for the Wofford game it will be a few games into the season before anyone firmly entrenches himself as the starter alongside Wright."
"Doc, it's been a privilege and a pleasure finally getting to meet you. In a few weeks I'll be in hot 'lanta on business. Gonna have some free time after my meetings are completed and I'd enjoy dropping by for another chat."
"Don't be a stranger now that you know the way here. You're always welcome to drop by anytime. I'll have Ernesto fry us a couple of steaks with a vodka glaze that'll knock you out. Then we'll have a slab of rum cake out on the verandah while we talk about the initial games of AFA's season."
"Count on it, Doc. Remember to drop by Liquor-Mart before then. See you in a few weeks."