THE "LaBasco CAVEAT." In football, as in life, there are no certainties. After the conclusion of the 2001 season AFA football fans knew the starting lineup for the 2002 edition of the team would look drastically different from the one which sprang an upset against the Utah Utes on December 1, 2001. Falcons' fans fixed their gaze upon the wide open race for the quarterback spot. There were plenty of candidates for the position with the only apparent certitude being that the winner of the QB derby would emerge by the fall of 2002 throwing passes to returning wide receiver Brian LaBasco.
LaBasco's completely unanticipated absence from the team should serve as a cautionary tale that even in the regimented, well-ordered realm of Air Force football there is no "sure thing." With the caveat that, quite literally, anything can happen on the Air Force depth chart concerning the personnel therein, here is a preview of what AFA fans might find on Opening Day in 2003. (Figures in parentheses refer to games started in the 2002 regular season by a player. Class ranks mentioned refer to a player's projected class standing in the fall of 2003.)
ON OFFENSE. Air Force captured its first division 1-A rushing title in the 2002 season and will return six of seven key linemen who helped the Falcons earn that distinction. Remember that in AFA's ground based option attack the tight end is primarily a lineman, not a receiver.
TE, Adam Strecker C1C, (12). Prior to the 2002 season Strecker had never so much as started a game for the Falcons. Not only did he start every game for AFA in 2002, but he led the team in receptions (13), reception yardage (243), touchdown receptions (4) and yards per catch (22.1). It is incumbent upon offensive coordinator Chuck Petersen to see to it that Strecker is given the opportunity to become a far more integral part of the passing game in 2003. Historically, Fisher DeBerry has paid lip service to saying that "this will be the year we throw more often to the tight end." It has never happened. Strecker must be given every chance to let his 6-6/240 pound body wreak havoc throughout opposing secondaries in the coming season. Strecker's performance in 2002 showed that he is the most explosive element of the Falcons' woefully inept passing attack.
C1C Todd Jolly and C3C Ross Weaver will battle for the right to back up Strecker. If Strecker duplicates his proficiency from the 2002 season, then his replacements will see as much playing time Cal Ripken's understudies.
LT, Brett Waller, C1C (12). Like Strecker, Waller had never started a game for the Falcons until Opening Day against Northwestern. Waller started every game in the regular season and registered ten or more knockdown blocks of opposing defensive linemen in ten different games. C1C Scott Diehl will be in the competition to play behind Waller at the left tackle spot.
LG, Brett Huyser, C1C, (12). Entering the 2002 season Huyser was the "graybeard" of the unit having started all of four games at the end of the previous season. He shifted from right guard to left guard and never missed a beat. Huyser finished the regular season with the second highest total of knockdown blocks and led the team in three games in that category. With his running mate Jess Underbakke, Huyser gives Air Force one of the best sets of guards in the MWC.
The role to serve as Huyser's backup is wide open as Nate Olsen will graduate this spring. C1C, Cory Crossetti is one possibility for the spot.
C, John Peel, C2C, (6). Peel started six games for Air Force after Wayne Southam injured his left knee. Peel and Southam each started half the team's games in 2002 and there was no appreciable downturn in rushing production regardless of which player was in the lineup. In Peel's first start as a collegian Air Force ran for a cool 409 yards against BYU. C1C Stephen Maddox will challenge Peel for the starting role in what should be the off-season's most hotly contested battle along the offensive line. It won't matter who emerges as the victor as AFA will have youth, depth and game experience at this critical position.
RG, Jesse Underbakke, C1C, (12). When the 2002 MWC all conference team was released there were howls of disbelief which arose from AFA staff and supporters over the absence of even a single Air Force offensive lineman from the all star squad. The strongest case for inclusion on that team could have been made for Underbakke. In third and short or fourth and short situations in the 2002 season Air Force frequently initiated plays intended to send running backs through holes opened by Underbakke's blocks. The Falcons converted a dizzying 84 of 171 (49%) third down plays. Underbakke, AFA's best offensive lineman, was a key component in the Falcons' ability to sustain drives by securing first downs in short yardage situations. He led the team in knockdown blocks with 205 finishing a distant 48 blocks in front of Huyser. Underbakke led the team on six different occasions in knockdown blocks
Cory Crossetti saw action for several series a game during the season and allowed Underbakke to catch a breather on the sideline. While Crossetti is a capable lineman, he has the unfortunate timing to be playing behind one of the finest offensive linemen in the option era at the academy.
RT, Blane Neufeld, C1C, (12). Neufeld is yet another example of offensive line coach Ed Warinner's outstanding work. Neufeld suffered a broken foot in practice drills during preparation for the San Francisco Bowl. Hopefully Neufeld's foot will be able to regain its flexibility and strength in the off-season so that he will recapture full speed in time for spring practice. Neufeld led the team in knockdown blocks in two games. C2C, Matt Thompson finished the season as the backup to Neufeld.
Five players in the offensive line started every game in 2002 for Air Force. Graduating senior Wayne Southam and junior to be John Peel each started six games at center. A total of just seven players started in the offensive line for AFA in 2002. The good news is when the 2003 season begins Air Force will have its most experienced returning offensive line in the history of option football at the academy. North Texas State and Wofford replace Notre Dame and Cal on next fall's schedule. What is essentially a completely intact offensive line--which led the way for the nation's leading rushing attack--returns for a second season. That is indeed mellifluous music to the ears of AFA running backs.
The bad news is that it is unlikely the good health which followed the line in 2002 will extend throughout another season. While the starters along the line enabled the Falcons to become the only team in division 1-A to gain more than three hundred yards rushing per game, only limited game experience is held by the candidates understudying any of the starters. The continued absence of injury to the starters would help pave the way for another impressive running attack.
THE SKILL POSITIONS. Nowhere on its roster will the Falcons have a richer supply of game tested veterans than among its running backs and wide receivers.
QB, Chance Harridge, C1C, (12). An unknown commodity when the season began against the Northwestern Wildcats in 2002, Harridge became a central figure as the team fashioned a six game winning streak and rose to number fifteen in one national poll at the midway point of the campaign. Chance was one of seven players to start on offense in all twelve regular season games for the Falcons. He showed, toughness, resilience, leadership, athletic ability and a resolve to win as he led AFA to a solid 8-5 mark highlighted by the team's CIC championship and berth in the San Francisco Bowl. Finishing the season with 1,410 yards rushing for his career and an eighteenth place standing on the academy's all time rushing list, Harridge will enter the 2003 season with the chance to make a concerted run at becoming the sixth player to reach and surpass the 2,000 yard barrier at Air Force.
Every quarterback has an Achilles' Heel and Harridge has his as well. For the season he completed 64 of 144 passes for just a 44.44% completion mark. Even in the option based ground attack which AFA utilizes that figure is unacceptable. If quarterbacks' coach Chuck Petersen and receivers' coach Tim Horton can devise and implement pass routes which accentuate Harridge's limited abilities to throw the ball and if Harridge can make incremental improvements in his ability to throw the ball, then the Falcons' offense in 2003 may resemble the halcyon days of 1998 when the team ran AND passed for 468 points and posted a 12-1 record. Until Harridge shows the ability to sustain a credible passing attack in a two pronged offense he will remain a talented, but mono-faceted, quarterback.
Graduating senior Bryan Blew saw limited playing time in relief of Harridge in 2002. After Harridge's 144 pass attempts the next highest figure on the team was 6---and that by halfback Leotis Palmer. Suffice it to say that the cupboard is quite bare at the number two QB spot for AFA. The list of candidates for the backup spot at QB is lengthy. C3C Brad Booth and C2C Brad Baca may be two players worth remembering for the job. AFA would be well served to find a capable sophomore--C3C--to serve as Harridge's backup next year with an eye toward grooming him to ascend to the starter's role for the 2004 season.
The wide receiver spot is a position at which the Falcons will enjoy an uncustomary measure of game-experienced personnel. Graduating senior Ricky Amezaga, who started the final ten games of the regular season, will be gone, but C1C, Anthony Park (2), C2C, Alec Messerall and C2C, J.P. Waller will battle for the starting job. Air Force fans realize that Fisher DeBerry has long utilized WRs to shuttle plays into the huddle during a game. He'll enjoy the luxury of having a trio of battle tested messenger/players. Adam Strecker led the team in most of the significant receiving statistics, but Waller, Park and Messerall made contributions to the passing game.
Waller was second on the team in receptions with 11 for 144 yards and 1 TD. Park grabbed 10 passes for 236 yards and 1 TD. Park's 23.6 yards per reception led the team. His catch and run for an 80 yard TD against Wyoming was the team's most electrifying play of the season in 2002. Messerall caught three passes for 84 yards and 1TD. If Park fully recovers from a leg injury which hampered him late in the season he should have the inside track for the starter's job in 2003, but Air Force is deeper at this position than at any time since Matt Farmer and Dylan Newman were manning the wideout spot for the Falcons in the late 1990s. With three capable players at the spot the need for a fourth WR seems, at best, limited.
Dan Shaffer, (1), began the season as the starting fullback only to suffer an injury on the first play of the second half against Northwestern which sidelined him for the remainder of the campaign. Shaffer may seek, and be granted, a "medical turnback" year--the equivalent of a "redshirt" year at the academy. Even if he does not pursue this avenue, Shaffer does have playing eligibility remaining in his career. He could be repeating his junior year or return to the team as a senior, C1C, for the 2003 season.
In the 2000 season Shaffer saw action in eight games carrying the ball 38 times for 203 yards, 1 TD and a 5.34 yards per carry average. In the first half against Northwestern before sustaining his injury, Shaffer carried eight times for 45 yards, 1 TD and a 5.63 yards per carry average. In limited duty over the past two seasons Shaffer has totaled 46/248/5.39/2 TDs. The Falcons suffered through another season in 2002 with sporadic production from the FB position. Shaffer's return to good health and ability to crank out robust gains on a regular basis would relieve pressure on Harridge and especially the halfbacks on whom on increasing burden has been placed over the past two years.
Steve Massie, C1C, (9) will surely be in the thick of the race for the starter's role at the FB spot. Massie gained 450 yards on 90 carries for a 5.0 average and chipped in with 4 TDs. Adam Cole, C2C, (2) gained 193 yards on 48 attempts and scored one TD. Steve Gehrsitz, C2C gained 132 yards on 31 carries and also scored a TD.
Air Force has a quartet of players which will vie actively for the starting FB spot. The nature of the AFA ground game is such that no one FB is likely to be able to withstand the punishment exacted by a full season. The Falcons' quandary will not come in trying to decide upon a starter, but rather in trying to replenish the consistent productivity which was sorely lacking during the 2001 and 2002 seasons. The coaching staff should be painfully aware that AFA's three game midseason slide versus Notre Dame, CSU and Wyoming coincided with the disappearance of the FB game. Whether one player seizes the position with a death grip or meaningful production is achieved in a "fullback by committee" manner, Air Force must reestablish this integral element of its ground game in 2003.
There has been an evolution in AFA's option attack over the past four or five seasons. The presence of speedy, accomplished halfbacks Scotty McKay, Qualario Brown and the multitalented Leotis Palmer, made it possible for the Falcons to diversify their running game to include more than just a steady barrage of off-tackle quarterback sorties and fullback blasts into the line. In the era of option football at Air Force there have been five halfbacks who have rushed for 1,400 or more yards. The fact that McKay, Brown and Palmer were teammates and that each reached the 1,400 yard mark speaks volumes about the athleticism of AFA's halfbacks in recent years. McKay and Brown reached the barrier as seniors during the 2000 season, with Palmer reaching the plateau as a senior as well during the 2002 campaign. The "wishbone" attack served a useful purpose when first installed by Fisher DeBerry. Over two decades as the team's head coach he has been able to tinker, adjust and modify some of the scheme's nuances and particularly so in recent years because the team's HBs have been such gifted runners. AFA's first national rushing title was garnered in 2002, a year in which the team's HBs ran wild. The legacy so recently promulgated by McKay, Brown and Palmer will remain in good hands when the 2003 season arrives.
Leotis Palmer, a back of all trades and master of every damn one of them, will graduate this coming spring. Palmer completed his career as the Falcons' seventeenth leading rusher with 1,470 yards. He stands third among halfbacks in the option era in terms of rushing yardage having been outdistanced by only Greg Johnson (1,993) and Jake Campbell (1,478). Leotis has several worthy successors eager to extend AFA's burgeoning reliance on shifty, elusive halfbacks. Palmer started all 12 games at one HB spot for the Falcons. The other HB position was manned by Anthony Butler (1), and graduating seniors Tom Heier (5) and Don Clark (6).
Anthony Butler, C2C, (1) battled a season in which he was beset by one injury after another. A shoulder problem was bothersome to Butler early in the season and caused him to miss the games against New Mexico, Navy, BYU and Notre Dame. As a C4C in 2001, Butler enjoyed a quick start to his AFA career by carrying the ball 66 times for 375 yards, a 5.68 yards per carry average and 4 TDs. Despite missing four games in 2002, Butler produced totals of 70 carries for 349 yards, a 4.99 yards per carry clip and 3 TDs. Butler's career totals show him with 136 carries for 724 yards, a healthy 5.32 yards an attempt and 7 TDs. By comparison, consider that after his second year Palmer's totals showed him with only 61 carries, 395 rushing and 3 TDs (one via a pass reception). Butler has shown every indication of being a player around whom Chuck Petersen can base a large section of his game plan. Barring unthinkable developments Butler will start at one HB spot for the Falcons this coming fall.
The competition for the second halfback position may give rise to the single-most heated battle of the off-season. Darnell Stephens, C2C was fifth on the team in carries (63), fourth in yards gained (431) and fourth in TDs scored (2). Stephens was second on the team in yards per carry with a sparkling 6.84 figure. His career totals of 70 carries for 482 also put him ahead Leotis Palmer at similar junctures of their careers. At 6-2/200 Stephens is one of the biggest HBs to play in Falcons' backfield in the option era. Stephens will certainly be a bona fide candidate for a starting spot in the backfield.
Leotis Palmer burst onto the Air Force football scene as a C4C in the 1999 season opener against Villanova, when he scampered for a 36 yard TD in the second half. First year players at Air Force know their place and generally it is on the junior varsity roster. Once in a blue moon, or even less frequently, a freshman comes along whose talent is so compelling that Fisher DeBerry can't resist the temptation to see how such expertise will fare when pitted against division 1-A competition. The 2002 season was one in which Matt Ward showed flashes of brilliance with which he may bedazzle Mountain West Conference teams for the next three autumns.
Ward, a C3C from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, showed great wheels running the ball 35 times for 246 yards, 2 TDs and a team high 7.03 yards an attempt. He provided the Falcons with their only touchdown of the game in the San Francisco Bowl when he took a pitch from Palmer and raced fifteen yards for the first points of the game against Virginia Tech. The one element of Ward's game which prevented him from having a greater impact on the team in 2002 was his unpolished blocking. Halfbacks will run the ball with increasing frequency in AFA's ground game, but a player's continued presence in the Falcons' backfield will be directly effected by his ability to perform his blocking assignments. If Ward improves his blocking skills in spring and fall drills he can be a serious contender for a starter's spot in the AFA backfield.
Butler, Stephens and Ward form a thriving nucleus for AFA's corps of running backs. (C1C, Joe Schieffer should be in the race to become a fourth HB on the squad.) Toss Chance Harridge into the mix, add a healthy portion of an offensive line which paved a course to a national rushing title and Air Force has the perfect recipe to serve up a productive rushing attack in 2003.
MANY HAPPY RETURNS. The job of returning punts in 2002, principally, was handled by Leotis Palmer. He returned 17 of 21 punts for the Falcons. Graduating seniors Wes Crawley and Paul Mayo each returned single punts as did Larry Duncan, C1C, 1 punt and wide receiver, J.P. Waller, C2C, 1 punt.
When it comes to punt returners Fisher DeBerry has shown a well established preference for using this specialist's role as a means of inserting into the lineup young, speedy, elusive players who may not yet have won a starting position. It is noteworthy to mention that over the past five seasons the team's primary punt returners were none other than Scotty McKay, Qualario Brown and Leotis Palmer. All three players saw their first extensive duty as varsity players in the role of punt returner. Preceding this trio of players in the role was wide receiver Matt Farmer--the player I rate as AFA's finest wide receiver in the twenty-eight years I have watched the program on a close basis.
The point here is that Fisher doesn't throw any old warm body back there to field punts. He has a documented history of filling the assignment with a talented player who is on the verge of becoming a central figure in the team's offense. I'm playing a hunch on this one--whether he wins a starting position as a halfback or not--expect to see Matt Ward fielding either punts (or kickoffs) for the Falcons next fall.
Graduating senior Bryan Blew was the team's leading kickoff returner in 2002, bringing back 14 of twenty-eight kicks returned by Air Force. Graduating senior Don Clark ran back one kick.
Ward (6), Messerall (5) and Stephens (2), are the other members of the 2002 squad who saw duty returning kickoffs. Any and all of this threesome may see action in this role come fall.
OUTLOOK. With the "LaBasco Caveat" that an even-keeled program such as Air Force may be subjected to unexpected turmoil notwithstanding, the Falcons will return seven starters on offense--six linemen and a QB.
At three other positions Air Force is likely to insert players with at least limited starting experience. Anthony Butler has been a starter and will almost certainly be one in the fall. Dan Shaffer and Steve Massie have each started games at the FB spot. Anthony Park started two games at wide receiver in 2002. Only one HB spot is likely to be filled by a relative newcomer.
The presence of an intact offensive line, an explosive runner and veteran leader in Chance Harridge, a potent threat in TE Adam Strecker and talent, depth and speed to burn at the halfback spots should give Air Force a formidable arsenal with which to attack opposing teams in 2003.