Troy Calhoun came back to the Air Force Academy in 2007 with a hard act to follow in replacing Fisher DeBerry, the winningest head football coach in service-academy history.
But DeBerry didn't leave the cupboard bare, with veterans like quarterback Shaun Carney and playmaker Chad Hall still around, and Calhoun led the Falcons to 9-4 and a bowl game that first year. That set the program in place for five straight winning seasons and bowl appearances, the longest such streaks in AFA history.
Now, heading into his sixth season with a 41-24 record so far (24-15 in the Mountain West Conference), Calhoun and his staff in a real sense find themselves starting over with another tough act to follow — their own.
This actually feels more like 2008, after the class including Carney and Hall graduated, leaving Air Force inexperienced at key positions. That was the year two gifted freshmen emerged, quarterback Tim Jefferson and tailback Asher Clark, and they carried the offense through four productive years.
Now the Falcons are looking for the next Jefferson and Clark, with only a handful of experienced starters on the roster. Then, as preseason workouts began last week, Calhoun confirmed that five players were off the team for undisclosed reasons. They included some familiar names (linebacker Jamil Cooks, receiver Mikel Hunter and safety Anthony Wooding), players who were to have prominent roles this year.
So there's no danger of inflated expectations, which the Falcons dealt with last year against arguably the toughest schedule the school had ever faced. Even before those five players were announced as gone, this year's Falcons had been picked sixth in the Mountain West.
Any pessimist could look at Air Force's personnel, study the schedule, and see how this could become Calhoun's first losing season, 5-7 or even 4-8. All six road games loom as potential defeats: Michigan and Nevada-Las Vegas in September, Wyoming in October, then Army, San Diego State and Fresno State in November. Add to that the ominous home games against Navy, Nevada and Hawaii, and you begin to understand why the term "rebuilding" is being attached to many AFA preseason analyses.
Or we could look at it another way: Air Force always has preferred this kind of scenario. That "circle the wagons" mentality sets in, cohesion and leadership quickly develop, and the Falcons over-achieve. To strengthen the point, four positives convince this longtime AFA observer not to expect the worst:
• Offensive line. Through the years, when the Falcons have had good lines, that often has been just as important as the so-called skilled positions. So it is now, with two returning starters and several others who have played extensively while waiting their turns to start. Tackle to tackle, the starters now are all seniors and juniors.
• Senior quarterback. Almost without fail, Air Force has had winning seasons with seniors running the offense, especially when they've already had ample playing time. Connor Dietz stepped in several times as Jefferson's backup and has plenty of experience with developing game plans and reacting to defenses.
• Kicking game. This looks like a year when field goals could decide several games, and the Falcons have a dependable kicker in senior Parker Herrington, who already has earned preseason all-conference mention.
• Linebackers. On a defense that has to replace many big-play leaders, Air Force will be younger than usual up front and in the secondary, with sophomores dotting the depth chart. But at linebacker, the Falcons have stability with seniors like Alex Means and Stephan Atrice at the outside spots, and three more sharing the inside roles: Austin Niklas, Josh Kusan and James Chambers.
With those factors weighing in their favor, the Falcons should have a better starting point than the naysayers realize. They'll still need some luck, and younger players must blossom quickly at running back, wide receiver and defensive back. But that's happened before.
Let's remember something else: This team is accustomed to winning, not losing. That 7-6 record last year was very disappointing to the players and coaching staff. To them, "rebuilding" is not part of Air Force's vocabulary.