Professorial Enlightenment

I'd certainly had smoother landings than the one I experienced on the Delta flight which touched down at Hartsfield less than half an hour earlier, but that was all behind me as I headed for the car rental counter to begin my drive to the Professor's house in Macon. I had questions about the Air Force football team for which I was confident he'd have informative answers.

GOT ANYTHING ELSE TO EAT? As I flipped on the turn signal and headed into his home's horseshoe shaped driveway, I spotted the houseboy, Ernesto, removing the quills from a porcupine which had expired under a Banyan tree.

"Hey, 'Nesto where's the old man?" A wordless gesture informed me that I'd be able to find the Professor waiting for me on the sun porch at the far end of the house. The front door was wide open so I ambled through the vestibule, past the dining room and espied the Professor exactly where Ernesto indicated he would be.

Doc gave me a genuinely enthusiastic reception and asked how my flight from Denver had been.

"Fine except for the landing. The plane had more lateral and horizontal stops and starts than I had anticipated during the final descent to the tarmac."

"Aw shoot, you musta had my old pal, Windshear Morrison, flying you today. He's a little rough until he's had that second or third, morning margarita."

"Thanks for the warning. Maybe I'll change airlines on my flight back to DIA. Denver's a United town anyway. If you don't mind my saying so, Doc, I've got more important topics on my mind today than your quasi-alcoholic cohorts."

"I'm ready for you. I know you've got a bagful of questions about Fisher's team so fire away when you're set. Let me just renew acquaintances with Jim Beam over here and I'll be right with you. Can I getcha one to start your day?"

"No, but thanks. Maybe a bit later. What was Ernesto doing with that porcupine?"

"You're in for a treat. He's making his world famous enchiladas out of that critter. If you're lucky he might even give you the recipe."

"Yeah, talk about me being lucky, showing up in time for such inedible dreck. In advance of consuming that gourmet treat, I want to tap into the storehouse of knowledge you amassed under coach Vince Drooley when you were at Georgia Massive. You've seen plenty of starts to teams' football seasons. What are your impressions of Air Force this year?"

THIS, THAT AND THE OTHER. "At the start of the season I always notice what others would consider minute details. The punting game for the Falcons has improved more than I thought possible. Andrew Martin has been consistently launching terrific kicks. There's always a danger that at altitude a punter can outkick his coverage."

"And that hasn't happened to the Air Force this year?"

"Heck no!! AFA has held opponents to 17 yards in returns in four games. That's exceptional. Not only that, but the Falcons have punted 12 fewer times than their opponents already this season. That kind of prowess by the defense keeps the ball in the hands of AFA's option attack and let's the defense remain well rested, fresh and less vulnerable to allowing touchdowns to be scored against it."

"Let me see if I understand the full extent of what you've said. When AFA has punted, Martin's performance has kept opposing teams from establishing decent field position. The Falcons' defense has then made it tough for teams to move the ball thereby enabling Air Force to recapture possession of the ball because other teams have had to punt so often."

"Bingo. And that's not the only area in which the Falcons have looked particularly strong. After AFA won its first national rushing title last year I was eager to see how its ground game would be this season. There are five full-time starters returning in the offensive line and a sixth player started half the games in 2002 at the center position. Apart from a few too many false start penalties, the offensive line has been as solid as it was last season."

"There have been no surprises then for you with AFA's running game, Doc?"

"Quite the opposite. There have been nothing but surprises. Now I'm not a bit startled that AFA is leading the country in rushing. In fact I think the team has every possibility of winning a second rushing title in a row. What has startled me is the balance in production the team has received. For years and years Fisher relied on the QB and FB to move the ball. The majority of carries went to players at those two spots and everyone else was an afterthought."

"Interesting observation Doc. In your assessment what's changed?

"Fisher's hearing has gotten better. Coach DeBerry a few years back.  (Getty) He's listening to Dean Campbell more than ever. Campbell's done a phenomenal job of coaching the running backs since joining DeBerry's staff. Leotis Palmer, Anthony Butler, Darnell Stephens and Matt Ward--on a collective and individual basis--were integral reasons why the Falcons ran the ball so well in 2002. That group is the best crew of halfbacks Air Force has seen since itbegan playing option football nearly twenty-five years ago. Three of them are back and Joe Schieffer is pitching in with some key runs like the one he had late in the game versus the Cowboys. Butler, Stephens and Ward have the speed to attack the perimeter of any defense Air Force will face this season."

"Why do feel Campbell has influenced Fisher?"

"For starters, look at the number of carries the HBs receive these days. Last week alone the foursome had 37 carries against Wyoming. I remember full months in Fisher's tenure in which the HBs didn't get that number of rushing attempts. Campbell has so much speed at the HB spot that it would be a waste of talent to let it stand idle by assigning those players to be nothing more than decoys and blockers."

"But Doc, if the HBs are seeing more carries doesn't that adversely effect the rest of the team's running game?"

"Your brain must not be gettin' enough air in that Mile High altitude. Just the opposite is true.Chance on the run Vs BYU in 02.  (AP) In fact, because the HBs are getting an increased number of carries, Chance Harridge and the fullbacks aren't forced to absorb the beating they might otherwise take play after play after play in the option attack. Being subjected to fewer punishing hits throughout a game keeps the QBs and the FBs fresh during crucial drives late in a game. Utilizing the speed of the HBs to attack the perimeter of enemy defenses dictates that the opposing team can't always stuff seven, eight or nine defenders from tackle to tackle while trying to control AFA's inside running. If a defense tries to shut down AFA's inside game, the Falcons have plenty of speed, especially with Stephens and Ward, to cruise outside the tackles. When defensive sets are positioned a little wider, out of respect for AFA's outside game, then Harridge and the FBs have room to roam in a less congested middle of the field."

"It sounds like a no win situation for defensive coordinators trying to defuse the Air Force attack. Are there other benefits which accrue to Air Force's offense due to the ability of the HBs to be productive?"

"You bet there are. The biggest one concerns the passing game. Harridge is a year older, has run the option attack for 17 games and is growing in confidence. He knows that even if he doesn't complete a pass, the rushing attack is so potent, that there's a strong likelihood the yardage needed for a first down can be gained on the ground. Harridge is running the ball less frequently this season and because he's absorbing fewer hits he may be stronger when he's called on to pass."

"That's an interesting theory Doc, but do the team's passing stats confirm your hunch?"

"In fact they do. Through the first four games of last season Harridge completed only 17 of 40 passes, or 42.5% of his attempts. He finished the season at the 44.44% mark. During the off-season Fisher made far too much out of the need for Harridge to raise his completion figure an arbitrary ten points to 54%. The need to balance and diversify the offense by moving the ball through the air and to sustain drives which produce TDs is far more important than reaching the statistical milestone of 54% in pass completions. Harridge has improved markedly as he's hit on 25 of 44 passes for a 56.8% mark. He had a 3 TD pass effort against a dreadful North Texas pass defense, but make no mistake about it, he's an improved passer this year."

"I have to agree with you Professor. Harridge still has some flaws in his passing game. One in particular is that he doesn't set his feet every time before releasing the ball. Still, his completion percentage is on the rise, his ability to hit passes has sustained drives and kept opposing defenses guessing just enough to allow AFA's most potent weapon--the running game--to once again lead the nation while being the only running attack to pile up over 300 yards a game. Harridge is a terrific leader."

"Now you're getting the hang of it. People are all caught up in the nonsense of Harridge being way behind the scoring pace he set last season when he ran for 22 TDs. It's true that he probably won't match that production on the ground this year. Far more important than individual accomplishments is the team's success. Harridge has significantly increased his total offensive production from last season to this year, through four games. In 2002, he had 547 yards of offense after four games. This year that total has risen to 621 yards. That's a healthy 13.5% increase and all of it has come through the air. Harridge has worked hard to become a better passer and that effort is having an impact on the field. The team is 4-0 for the second season in a row and is developing an offensive balance that's been lacking since the late 1990s. With some of the current problems BYU, CSU and New Mexico are having there's reason to believe Air Force can make a run at a conference title."

"I see your glass is about empty, Doc. Have Ernesto whip up a batch of Hurricanes and I might even have one with you. Maybe it'll dull my taste buds enough that I can stomach one of those enchiladas. In the meantime give me your impressions of the Falcons' defense so far on the year."

"I was hoping you'd raise that topic. I want to tell you that I've always been partial toward players in the secondary who have exceptional size and can hit hard enough to loosen your teeth. Coach Vic Shealy has the best defensive back I've seen at Air Force since 1996 when free safety Jason Sanderson started as a sophomore. This kid, Dennis Poland, is flat out hell on wheels. I don't care if Jeff Overstreet arrived at the academy with more acclaim or that Larry Duncan has been in the starting lineup since longer than anyone can remember. Poland is the player who keeps my attention."

"Why's that Doc?"

"First of all it's his size. He's an honest to goodness six feet three inches tall. Air Force doesn't get kids that tall in the secondary more than once a decade. He's well over 200 pounds, can run, hits like a train and makes big plays game after game. In 1996, Sanderson stepped into the lineup as a sophomore, and along with Tim Curry, gave the Falcons as solid a twosome in the secondary as I've seen at the academy in twenty years. Nobody was able to move Sanderson out of the backfield for three seasons. Poland looks as though he's following in those footsteps and I can't wait to see how big and fast he becomes in his junior and senior years. I just hope AFA fans get a chance to see him and that he doesn't bail out of the place early. He has the ability to be an all conference player. He's that good."

"Poland had a long day against Casey Bramlet and Wyoming last week didn't he Professor?"

"That's a fair statement and one which may apply to every secondary Wyoming faces this year, whether the Cowboys win or not. The Falcons didn't have an interception last week, but the secondary held its poise to the point where it didn't allow Bramlet to steal the game. John Taibi impressed me when he replaced Adrian Wright next to Poland for some of the second half in the Wyo game. Air Force could be in good shape at the Falcon Back spots for the next two years with a pair of players like Poland and Taibi."

"What about the 3-3-5 alignment? You've had a chance to see it in action for 17 games. What do think of it?"

"It's a flawed, but workable, scheme for the Falcons. It's impossible to generate an effective pass rush for four quarters with three down linemen. Air Force has no alternative but to blitz and stunt all day playing from a base 3-3-5 scheme. If an opposing QB can discern or guess from where the AFA blitz will originate, he can hit an open receiver for a potentially devastating play in the vacated area of the defense."

"Is there a way to disguise the inherent weakness of the 3-3-5 defense?"

"Not really. Defensive coordinators will tell you the scheme poses problems for offenses because they won't know from where the blitz is coming. What defensive coordinators won't say is that a team utilizes a 3-3-5 simply because they have a lack of capable DL who can provide an effective pass rush. The coordinator therefore employs LBs and DBs as a means of trying to limit the opposing team's offensive strengths."

"I understand BYU will attack AFA with its own 3-3-5 alignment this week in Provo. How do think that will go?"

"No one in the MWC has had more success in stopping AFA's attack than Bronco Mendenhall. He was Rocky Long's defensive coordinator at UNM for several years. The Lobos gave Air Force all kinds of trouble until last season. Now Mendenhall is in Provo with Gary Crowton. Gary Crowton hugs Matt Berry (AP-Terril)The Cougars defense has shown signs of improvement under Mendenhall, but the Falcons may be catching BYU early enough in the season to have a realistic shot at beating the Cougars before they've become fully proficient in implementing the defense. In fact, since the 3-3-5 eliminates one lineman in favor of a quicker, but much smaller DB, the Falcons' inside running game--especially the FB game--should be able to exploit the BYU line. The 3-3-5 is designed to defend the pass since it potentially drops eight players into passing lanes. It's not a defense designed for maximum support in stopping the run. It's incumbent upon an option offense to punish the 3-3-5 scheme by attacking it right up the middle."

"So there will be some pressure this week on Adam Cole, Steve Massie and Dan Shaffer at the FB spot for AFA. I see your point Doc. What about AFA's defense and its ability to cope with a passing attack that historically has tormented it?"

"Great question since it gets to the heart of whether or not the Falcons can contain the BYU offense. In short, no, I don't expect AFA's defense to be able to stop the Cougars' passing game. BYU threw for 300 yards versus Stanford last week even when the Cougars were forced to use a largely untested player as their QB. Bramlet showed how vulnerable AFA is to quick passes thrown underneath soft coverage packages. If BYU is patient, and willing to dink and dunk its way down the field against BYU TE Daniel Coats (Getty0) AFA's defense, I expect the Cougars to be able to move the ball effectively through the air. Their TE, Daniel Coats, will present the Falcons a challenge in that they'll need someone with the size to tackle a TE and the quickness to stay with a receiver who has outstanding speed. On the positive side for Air Force, is the fact that BYU has no one as talented a running back as Luke Staley this year."

A PARTING SHOT. "Doc, I hate to do this to you, but since I'm changing my return flight to Denver I'll be taking a pass on the enchiladas today. I'd like to hear one final assessment from you now that the Falcons have completed a third of their 2003 schedule."

"Well, short term fans won't like this, but long time fans will know it to be true: the Falcons haven't done one bit more than they should have at this point in the season. Wofford and North Texas are embarrassments and shouldn't have been on the schedule in the first place. Northwestern is a team AFA should be playing, but one that looks as if it's headed to the bottom of the Big Ten. Wyoming is a Mountain West Conference team struggling to establish even one iota of ability to play defense. In sum, the Falcons haven't faced a legitimately good division 1-A opponent yet. Whether or not they'll face one this weekend is hard to say. This bunch of Cougars bears little resemblance to the strong teams BYU produced in the '70s, '80s and '90s. Fisher DeBerry has never led a team to victory in Provo and this may be his best opportunity to go there and get the job done.

I told you about Jason Sanderson and the teams on which he played. I detest the fact that the 16 team, four quadrant, abortion of a football conference into which the WAC developed, robbed Fisher of the best chance he ever had to beat BYU in Provo."

"How's that Doc?"

"If the WAC had remained at eight teams, in 1998, AFA would have gone to Provo. That year Air Force finished the season 12-1 and had the best team I've seen at the academy, period. Sure, the Falcons beat BYU in Las Vegas for the WAC title that year, but Air Force was good enough to have gone to Provo and get the job done that season and I've always felt sad for coach DeBerry because that chance was taken from him. I think he's got more than a chance this time. He has an opportunity to put Air Force in position for run at a conference title with a win over Brigham Young. Like to see him do it, too. AFA fans don't like to talk about it, but Fisher has never beaten BYU in Provo. In recent years this series has swung in favor of the home team and in the last two years the home team has posted blowout wins. Apart from that 1998 team this is Fisher's best shot for a win in Provo."

"Thanks Doc. I'll see you in about a month for the Georgia-Florida game."

"Count on it. Ernesto's gonna whip up some turtle gumbo with cougar's feet in honor of the occasion, so be sure to bring your appetite. Say hello to Windshear if you see him stumbling around the pilots' lounge."

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