Foiling the flexbone

Over the years, Air Force has altered its offensive system from a wishbone to a flexbone with two slotbacks. Size necessitated a change. After all, it's hard to compete if you're sitting on your seat from an injury, reasoned coach Fisher DeBerry.

``We've changed a great deal,'' DeBerry said of the triple option system. ``A few years ago, we had a couple of small halfbacks. I worried about bringing them out of the halfback position in the old traditional wishbone set.

``If we left them in the wishbone, we might have gotten four or five games out of them. But we put then in the slots, and we got 11 games out of one and 12 out of the other. We don't have big running backs, but you don't have to have big backs (in the flexbone) like you do out of the I (formation), like Tennessee.''

The Falcons slotbacks are again small. Justin Handley is 5-8 and 175. Chad Hall is 5-8 and 180. And the fullback isn't exactly King Kong. Ryan Williams is 5-9 and 215.

The quarterback won't be confused with Daunte Culpepper. Shaun Carney is 5-10 and 190, but he's very efficient. He completed a school record 64.2 percent of his passes last season and he's run for more than 1,300 yards as a two-year starter.

``He is the best passer we've had,'' DeBerry said. ``He's ideally what you look for in an option quarterback. You'll have trouble finding him because he's not tall.''

But he's tough. And thick. He's fought his weight in recent years, but he's lost enough to lose a nickname.

``I don't refer to him as the Pillsbury Doughboy anymore,'' DeBerry said.

Paul Hamilton, Air Force's fullbacks coach who was formerly head coach at East Tennessee State (1997-2003), said it's more important now than ever to have an option quarterback who can pass. Otherwise, defenses could stack the line to stop the run.

Carney and the Falcons kept defenses honest last year. Air Force had five 200-yard passing games last season. A receiver had more than 100 yards in four games, and the two leading receivers averaged more than 17 yards per catch.

Tennessee secondary coach Larry Slade said his defensive backs will be challenged. They have to help in run support, but they can't get lulled to sleep.

``We'll be tested from a tackling standpoint,'' Slade said. ``But we'll be tested from a discipline standpoint to play the pass and stop the big play. I don't care who you watch them (Falcons) against, you see them making big plays in the passing game.''

Slade said his secondary must guard against thinking it must help the run on each snap. He said the defensive backs must first do their job.

``You get run after run after run,'' Slade said, ``and it's easy to get a little bit bored and say, `I'm going to go up here and stop this dive.' That's not your job. When you do against these guys, they make big plays.''

Dan Brooks, UT's defensive line coach, said Air Force's triple option is tougher to defend considering the Vols haven't seen it in years. He said UT worked against it some in the spring and some in August.

``It really makes guys responsibility conscious,'' Brooks said. ``Who's got the dive? Who's got the quarterback? Who's got the pitch? You have to limit some things you do to make sure you're sound against the option at all times.''

Does the option negate a defense's aggressiveness?

``We can't let it do that,'' Brooks said. ``That's been our personality. We're aggressive. Sometimes you try to make things happen. That's our nature. I don't think your change yourself.''

But if you play too aggressively, you can get burned.

One thing you can expect from Tennessee: The Vols will lay a lick on the quarterback each time he runs the option.

``We do have to have someone assigned to the quarterback because he's a really good player,'' Brooks said. ``He looks like a gamer. He throws the ball well and runs hard. He's a real competitor.''

That isn't UT's only concern.

``People that can line up and run the fullback when they want to, they're going to beat you,'' Brooks said. ``I think the first thing you have to do is stop the fullback, take away the dive. Make sure you've got players assigned to the dive, then start working on the other.''

While many triple option principles are the same in the wishbone as the flexbone, Air Force throws in some wrinkles with the halfbacks lined up in the slot. The Falcons will fake the fullback dive with the quarterback following behind. They'll run a slotback in motion to lead block on the linebacker, hoping to create another gap. They'll send the slotbacks in motion, then have them reverse field.

That means you've got to play disciplined football or run the risk of surrendering big plays.

But the triple option is tough to execute against a fast defense, and UT's defense is nothing, if not fast.

``The first half (against Cal) was as fast as we've played,'' Brooks said.

And Tennessee's defense will prove too fast for the Falcons' triple option.

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