Given that my beloved undergrad alma mater is coming up to Michigan to play my beloved grad school alma mater I felt a way too early preview of how the academy football program works as well as a preview of this year’s team was in order, especially as the Academy has concluded their Spring practices and we’re going to be starved for other types of content over the next few weeks.
Differences between the Academy program and the rest of college football:
Players recruited tend to be top out as low 3-stars, most are two stars or unranked. Competition tends to run to non-BCS schools for players, there’s usually 3-4 players per class that have legit BCS caliber offers. Recruiting strategy is to cast a wide net and bring in a large group of players. There’s also an emphasis on grabbing high-school quarterbacks as they tend to be good athletes and have higher football IQ’s. I’ve seen some people express concerns that Air Force and the other academies are over-signing by typically bringing in classes of 40+ players. The difference is that every cadet at the Air Force Academy doesn’t have to pay for a single thing and in fact get paid a small salary reflecting their jobs in the Air Force and every cadet gets the same financial deal. If you leave the football team or get cut your status as a cadet is not affected and therefore there is no financial impact because you are no longer on the team. There is also no redshirting as every cadet must graduate within four years. The academy prep school performs a rough red-shirting function but the(at least advertised) purpose of the prep school is academic.
Once a player agrees to attend the Academy his path diverges based on whether he qualifies for admission straight-away or not. If he qualifies straight-away he enters the academy as a freshman goes through basic training and then gets to see the practice field starting in August. While Basic Cadet Training isn’t the starvation fest it used to be, players still aren’t on a summer weights program and they’ll still have lost some weight. Combine that with the general low recruiting profile of most players and now you know why you almost never hear about impact freshmen playing at the academies. However, the academy runs a JV team that most Freshmen play on that plays area prep schools. It runs the same offensive and defensive systems as the Varsity team and gets guys live game experience while they get recover from Basic and get adjusted to Academy life
If a player doesn’t qualify for admission right out of the gate he will go the Air Force Academy prep school in order to get test scores and grades to make admissions standards. The prep school has a team which plays in the prep school league and runs the same offensive and defensive systems as the Varsity team. If the player gets his grades and test scores up while at the Prep school, he has the option to enter the academy as a freshman. Not all of them do this, some players decide they don’t want to go to the academy based off of their prep-school experience and some are actually recruited away by other schools if it turns out they can play. Generally speaking players who go to the prep school need to be re-recruited.
Spring Practices Freshman year tend to be when the cuts happen. Players are informed whether they have the option of joining the varsity team the next year or whether they will be finding other pursuits. Generally this conversation isn’t much of a surprise and most of my buddies who got cut expressed relief that it was over and that they didn’t quit.
What does this mean to Michigan? Despite the fact that Air Force lost a ton of starters, their replacements have had more experience in live game situations in the same system than most college players taking over as first-time starters. While the loss of experience is a concern, it’s neither atypical for the academies nor likely to have as big an impact as many imagine.
The offense: Air Force uses a triple option system that is mostly wishbone based but also incorporates some Wing-T concepts from when Troy Calhoun was at Wake Forest under Jim Grobe, himself a former assistant at the Air Force Academy. The base set outside of the QB and O-line is one WR, one TE, a combo WR/running back, a halfback, and a fullback. Calhoun has thrown quite a few wrinkles into the offense and it won’t always run out as a base set, but the offense will always return to the triple option well. The offensive system is hugely productive running the ball and not so much when it comes to passing. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know, nor am I going to tell you how the triple option works as smart football does a much better job than I do. Given the presence of Ryan and Kovacs on the outside edges and the effectiveness of Michigan State’s cut-blocking scheme during the trash tornado, expect Air Force to try to establish the running game through the fullback on up the gut runs and exploit the inexperience on the interior of Michigan’s D-line. They’ll probably also try to catch JT Floyd cheating up on run support and go over the top on him for deep strikes. Air Force executes the offense well and when playing teams that don’t have much experience playing them, they can catch teams off-guard. This unfamiliarity with the wishbone/triple option is the source of them upsetting power teams or keeping the game close enough for the rooting interests.
The defense: Air Force runs a 3-4-4 that in practice runs to a 5-2 type system with the outside linebackers pushed up to the line. Generally the Front 7 is undersized and the defensive backs are slow. As you can tell this leads to defense being Air Force’s vulnerability from year to year. Air Force will never have a shutdown defense, what they’re going to do instead is try to slow the other team down, frustrate them and bait them into a mistake that either puts them in an untenable down and distance or results in a turnover. Raise your hand if that sounds like the perfect way to defend Denard. The problem here is that Tim DeRuyter, previously Air Force’s excellent defensive coordinator, left for Texas A&M two years ago and is now the head coach at Fresno St. Air Force’s defense wasn’t very good last year, but the old coordinator left and the new one, Charlton Warren(personal aside: a classmate of mine) is a disciple of DeRuyter’s and will at least try to bring the scheme back, he was also one of the stars of the 1998 team that beat Washington in a bowl game and knows how to play successful defense at the academy.
The buzz from the Spring: Keep in mind that everything that’s available on the Academy’s Spring practices comes off of the (free) Scout boards or the local newspaper in Colorado Springs. Thus reports from Colorado Springs are IMO wildly biased and optimistic. The bullets that follow are based off my reading between the lines in an attempt to get closer to the truth.
- The Offense will be fine, although the starting QB is still inconsistent with the pitch, but he’s a good runner who makes good decisions in the running game.
-The running back corps is deep and looks like a major strength for the academy. The Fullbacks ran well all spring and run about four deep, Mike DeWitt came in for particular praise. The top two tailbacks are good, but depth behind them is a concern. Expect Wes Cobb, last year’s starting fullback, to start, but Jon Lee has made a ton of noise and will get a lot of carries as well. Put a gun to my head and I’d say whatever big plays come from Air Force will come from him.
-The defense still is not inspiring any confidence. The coaches seem to be trying to make up for the lack of any real playmakers by installing a high-tempo, everyone to the ball attitude. This sounds vaguely familiar for some reason. I don’t expect next year’s defense to have a Mattison-esque revival, but they should be better than they were last year.
The far too early call: This one’s going to be a long afternoon for me and whatever few other Air Force fans end up gracing the stadium. I expect the defense to get overwhelmed quickly and the offense will not be able to keep up, especially with Kovacs and Ryan shutting down the edges. Michigan 45-Air Force 17.