Air Force's recruiting classes continue to shrink under coach Troy Calhoun. But the academy graduate believes by being more selective, the classes have gotten better. "Every year it's smaller and smaller," he said. "But I think the quality has increased."
The Falcons previously had brought in large numbers of players because they are not bound by scholarship limits. They figured they would lose players who decided they didn't like the military lifestyle or couldn't handle the rigors of academy life.
But when Calhoun took over, he noticed that the Falcons' retention of their official-visit recruits was extremely poor. So he changed the recruiting philosophy. Air Force would do far more research up front and take fewer players -- but ones who were more likely to stay.
"We're a lot more selective," Calhoun said, who added that his fourth recruiting class is the smallest since he's been the head coach. "We're building a better rapport with kids and evaluating them a little earlier in the process."
Air Force recruits do not sign binding letters of intent like players heading to other schools because of the on-going academy admissions process. Because of that process, the academy does not release a list of recruits until they arrive on campus in the fall, and coaches cannot comment on their recruits.
But based on those players who have verbally committed to play at Air Force, or signed non-binding Certificates of Intent, the Falcons have put together another solid group.
This season's class contains the typical bumper crop of players from Texas, where Air Force deploys three assistant coaches (Jemal Singleton, Ron Burton and Blane Morgan) to recruit. About a third of the Falcons' approximately 40-player class (Air Force recruits for both the varsity team and its prep school squad) hails from the Lone Star State.
While Air Force also did well in traditionally fertile states Georgia and Ohio, it picked up some high-quality prospects from Arizona, including linebacker Austin Arias (Peoria/Centennial High) and offensive tackle Jacob Ehm (Scottsdale/Chaparral High), both of whom are listed as three-star recruits by Scout.com. Tight end Sean Craig (Tucson/Salpointe Catholic) is listed as a three-star recruit by Rivals.com.
Nearly all of the remaining players in Air Force's class are listed as one- or two-star recruits.
Air Force coaches now will shift their attention back to their current players and their offseason work. The Falcons are going through intense strength training and will begin spring practice earlier than usual -- Feb. 18.
--Defensive coordinator/associate head coach Tim DeRuyter left the academy in January to take the same job at Texas A&M. DeRuyter, who was one of Troy Calhoun's first hires when Calhoun took over at the academy prior to the 2007 season, was largely responsible for turning one of the nation's most porous defenses into one of its best. Matt Wallerstedt, who was the Falcons' assistant head coach and inside linebackers coach, will replace DeRuyter as defensive coordinator.
--Offensive assistant Patrick Covington left the academy for a job at Coastal Carolina. With the departures of Tim DeRuyter and Covington, Calhoun has two hires to make to fill out his staff. Calhoun said he wanted to fill the positions with academy graduates.
--LB Austin Arias, Peoria, Ariz. -- A three-star recruit, according to Scout.com, the 6-foot, 215-pound Arias made 98 tackles in his senior season after making 96 as a junior. Arias, a team captain, also played H-back for Centennial and was an "outstanding" receiver and blocker, according to his high school coach, Richard Taylor. But Arias projects as an inside linebacker at the academy.
--TE Sean Craig, Tucson, Ariz. -- A three-star recruit, according to Rivals.com, Craig was a first-team all-conference performer and team captain for Sal Pointe Catholic, which won its third straight region championship. As a senior, Craig caught a team-high 18 passes for 202 yards and a touchdown. He also made 42 tackles and a team-high 4.5 sacks. "He's a guy that can transition and potentially play a defensive end or an outside linebacker for Air Force," his high school coach, Dennis Bene, said. "They're getting a very, very good athlete, a kid that can play on both sides of the ball."
--FB Mark Weisman, Lincolnshire, Ill. -- According to his coach at Stevenson High, Bill Mitz, Weisman started at fullback for three years and never fumbled. "And during those years he rushed for about 4,000 yards," Mitz said. Mitz described Weisman as a "very physical, pounding fullback." Weisman averaged 23 carries per game as a senior and rushed for 1,657 yards and 22 touchdowns.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We're very, very thorough when it comes to the character part of it. We will talk to trainers, counselors, principles, teachers in addition to the coach. Every single person with whom we interact has got to tell us, 'This is as good a kid as we've ever had at this school.' And be pretty emphatic." -- Air Force coach Troy Calhoun, on one of the most important factors in identifying recruits.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
2010 LOOK AHEAD: Every offensive player who gained rushing yards in 2009 will be back in 2010, as will Air Force's top three quarterbacks and six of the team's top seven receivers. In addition, the Falcons will return three quarters of their secondary and a bevy of talented linebackers. But there are questions up front on both sides of the ball. All five starters on the offensive line graduated, and Air Force will have to replace two of three starting defensive linemen (end Myles Morales and nose guard Ben Garland).
SPRING SNAPSHOT: Air Force will start spring practice even earlier than last year, on Feb. 18, and finish by March 17.
Air Force will need to fill out an offensive line around junior-to-be A.J. Wallerstein, the lone returner with experience. The defense will have to adjust to life without coordinator Tim DeRuyter.
Air Force players must serve at least two years of a five-year active duty commitment before they can entertain thoughts about a pro career. But there are several players who could, down the line, make a pro team:
--DT Ben Garland -- The 6-5, 275-pound nose guard commanded double-teams but still made 10.5 tackles for losses as a senior. He was the one player opponents most had to account for during the 2009 season, and he allowed the Falcons to play nickel packages effectively.
--SS Chris Thomas -- Though hampered by a groin injury for much of 2009, the 5-11, 205-pound three-year starter made a splash in the Armed Forces Bowl, picking off a pair of passes and making 12 tackles.
--P Brandon Geyer -- In his first season as the Falcons' starting punter, the 6-4, 200-pound Geyer averaged 43.0 yards, with 17 of his 48 punts pinning opponents inside their 20-yard lines.
--Air Force should get two senior-to-be linebackers back from injury in the spring. ILB Ken Lamendola (knee) and OLB Patrick Hennessey (shoulder) had their 2009 seasons cut short by surgeries. In addition, sophomore-to-be OLB Alex Means (mid-foot sprain), also should be available.