Way too early football opponent preview: Air Force

Submitted by Rabbit21 on March 27th, 2012 at 3:24 PM

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.


Arizona Blue

March 27th, 2012 at 4:00 PM ^

Michigans schedule next year has to be top 5 in S.O.S. Air Force and the tripple option still leave me a bit nervous, though I do expect the team to win be 2+ touchdowns. Wouldn't be suprised if it was close at half. 


March 27th, 2012 at 4:01 PM ^

I'm nervous about this game especially because it is the week after the alabama game which will be the focus all fall camp.  I agree that AFA probably won't be able to stop our offense but I think they will get at least 30 points. 


This game will certainly show how tough Michigan's defensive front is and how disciplined our secondary is.  I love that we scheduled a military academy.  So much better than two MAC-rifices each year.  Hopefully there will be a cool flyover (B2 or F-22) and the band can do something patriotic since it will coincide with Sept. 11 the following tuesday.


March 28th, 2012 at 9:58 AM ^

I never knew either.  Fantastic write up!

Real interesting how their program does work.  Have to respect the service academies and their teams- with the way modern football works it is just so tough for them to compete but its always nice to see them win (just hopefully not against us!).


March 27th, 2012 at 10:19 PM ^

I am sorry and I am certainly not degrading your opinion but I think 30 points on our defense next year is a huge stretch of the imagination. I think 17 is a lot. We will be prepared for every game next year and over looking opponents is not part of Brady Hoke's mentality. We will show up and I think BWC, Q Dub, J.B, and Ondre will have a bigger impact than expected and that will shut the inside down as well as our LB's and we will be too fast on the edge for that. My predicition Michigan- 38 AF- 13. It may be close at the half though.


March 28th, 2012 at 10:27 AM ^

I see this game as being similar to ND vs AFA from last season. (which ND won 59-33).  I know that ND wasn't a great team last season but my point is that AFA runs an offense that is not seen alot in modern football.  Just when you think you have figured it out they will throw a new wrinkle in.  If you watch that ND vs AFA game it never feels like AFA is going to win but they certainly move the ball consistently.  I expect this to be a high scoring affair but that is just a gut feeling. 


March 28th, 2012 at 1:55 AM ^

The last 2 starting QB's for Air Force have also been 4 year starters, which is usually a rarity.  So it is possible that Air Force's starting QB has not even gone through Basic training yet.  Not necessarily a reason to cackle with glee though, because if he did attend the prep school, he will have worked in the Air Force offense as mentioned above.  Regardless of that, the Air Force offense resembles a high school offense in some facets so he may already be prepared to step in as far as basic principles. 


March 28th, 2012 at 3:05 PM ^

That's a good point and usually they took the job when the QB's ahead of them were relatively uninspiring or had major weaknesses to their profile.  That's the case this year as well.  Right now the guy down on the depth chart who's making the most noise is Kale Pearson who can actually throw(unlike Dietz) and is reportedly very athletic, his weakness is in executing the offense and making the right play, something that only game experience tends to fix.  He'll be a Sophomore next year, but it honestly would not surprise me if by the start of the season Connor Dietz(the current starter) got moved to tailback and Pearson was the starting QB.  The prep school QB is a guy named Dano Graves and reports on him are positive as well.  

There's definitely something to what you said, but for right now Dietz is the starter and that's what I chose to focus on.


April 11th, 2012 at 12:52 AM ^

Rabbit - You are accurate in most of your assessment and wise to focus on Dietz, a great athlete, but his shortcoming (distribution of the ball) may result in seeing one of the 2 Sophs -- Griebel, bigger/more physical and better pocket passer and/or Pearson, smaller and quick, as both of them are special kids and VERY athletic as well. The Frosh QB Graves has had knee issues, so his status in the program is unknown. One thing you can be sure of, the AFA staff will have a thorough plan to give the cadets their best shot for an upset.  Just ask Coach Stoops and the Sooners (The last time AFA played a big shot on the road----Boise too.).....Beware, if the Falcons are in the game at halftime, it will become precarious for the Wolverines into the 4th quarter.....Under estimating the underdog Falcons could possibly result in having to eat the monkey poop mentioned earlier. Longshot? sure....but historically in games like this the Falcons represent quite well. Michigan will be a better team having endured a "wild" game from Air Force.


March 28th, 2012 at 11:43 AM ^

I can not see Air Force putting up 17 points in Ann Arbor.  After the victory over Alabama, the energy and momentum will carry over.  41-9 UM


March 28th, 2012 at 8:17 PM ^


I do. The AFA runs a system first and foremost. There haven't been too many drop offs when QBs leave. Another one just comes in and fills the spot.

Like many other teams find out, preparing for the triple option on a week's notice is easier said than done. If this team takes the AFA lightly, like the hockey team did, they will be in for a long day.

Zone Left

March 28th, 2012 at 7:44 PM ^

Question: What's the most NCAA-thing in the world to do?

Answer: Suspend the entire football team from two of the three academies one day before the start of the season for paying their players. Why not three? That would make more sense than two.

Seriously though, the academies have been paying players since they started playing football and NO ONE DOES ANYTHING ABOUT IT!!!!! THEY'RE DIRTY CHEATERS!!!!


March 28th, 2012 at 8:19 PM ^

I wish this was a home and home.  There are so many Michigan Men and Women along the Front Range that we would have TAKEN OVER the Springs on that football Saturday.  Go Blue!


March 28th, 2012 at 11:38 PM ^

I am an E-6 in the Air Force, and lots of my bosses are Academy Grads.  I usually root for AFA in sports, but i NEVER root against the Wolverines.  I am going to try to make it up to AnnArbor with my oldest son for this game.  Go Blue.  I hope the team is still focused after winning in Dallas. 


March 29th, 2012 at 8:18 AM ^

from an E-4. I just sent a link to this article to an Academy grad I am working with currently. He's not much of a sports knowledge person, so I figure I should educate him a bit before we spank his alma mater.



March 29th, 2012 at 11:40 PM ^

One thing Rabbit didn't mention and that is how incredibly inspired the Cadets play. It doesn't matter if they are down by 30 or up by 30, they play hard every play. What they give up in size and athletic ability they make up in playing their "roles" and knowing their responsibilities.

Having played them I can tell you I feel safe knowing our country is in good hands.

Thanks for servings guys.




March 30th, 2012 at 10:32 AM ^

"The academy prep school performs a rough red-shirting function but the(at least advertised) purpose of the prep school is academic."

True statement, and the quality of play the Prep football team gets is pretty much a 5th yr of high school, for the most part.  (1987 grad of the Prep School).


/respect to you, Rabbit. 

Fast, neat, average


March 30th, 2012 at 10:47 AM ^

Although I agree with your general rundown on how the game will unfold, I expect Hoke to take his foot off the gas at 35-17 and not pummel my beloved Falcons.  I see this game as a no lose propostion as I've been a life long UM fan, seeing them win is never a disappointment.  But I do hope that AF gives a good fight and represents themselves well in Ann Arbor.  I'll be wearing a UM t-shirt under my AFA jersey...


March 30th, 2012 at 4:31 PM ^

Rabbit 21 - I have heard that at the other academies, the players have to drop their weight to "make weight" for military standards, and then put it back on right before the season. Found that difficult to believe. Is it true?  thanks




April 1st, 2012 at 12:45 PM ^

Rabbit's right. You don't have to cut weight until graduation so you can commission. Prior to that you just have to pass your PT test...which is handled differently if you're an athlete so they basically never fail. You'd have linemen failing all the time if they did that.

Rabbit, nice post. I wonder what it was like back when it was hard! Any grads going to meet up for the game? I might drive up from Wright-Patt

There will be no standing on chairs in Mitchell Hall.


April 7th, 2012 at 4:14 PM ^

This is very interesting. I'm a junior in high school, and my ultimate goal is to be coaching at Michigan. I am either going to go to the Naval Academy and be a manager on its football team then go to graduate school at Michigan and do the same. Or I would go straight to Michigan to be a manager. This is an interesting article.