Air Force head coach Troy Calhoun did the heavy lifting to land Falcons starting tight end Garrett Griffin in the recruiting Class of 2012, but he had a head start, thanks to Hall of Fame coach coach Fisher DeBerry.
DeBerry was still Air Force’s head coach in 2005 when Griffin first visited the academy as a fifth-grader.
Calhoun was then a Denver Broncos assistant, coaching in the NFL with the Denver Broncos before another year with the Houston Texans. DeBerry’s retirement opened the door for him to return to his alma mater, where college football remains about something more than Gordon Gecko-like greed and autographed memorabilia gathered by dubious salesmen.
Garrett’s father was a high school coach with a quarterback DeBerry unsuccessfully tried to recruit to Air Force in 2005.
“I went on the trip with my dad, his quarterback and his dad,” said Griffin, a junior from Louisburg, KS. “I saw this place and thought it was amazing. It has world class facilities. I thought it was a beautiful place with the mountains.”
If Garrett was ready to commit as a fifth-grader, he would receive his chance to sign on the dotted line seven years later under Calhoun.
Griffin has helped the Falcons to a 4-2 start overall that despite a 34-16 loss to Utah State last week in Mountain West play that dropped Air Force to 1-2 and tempered their 28-14 upset of Boise State three weeks earlier.
In high school, Griffin was as a running back and linebacker. Football Championship Subdivision and Division II schools wanted him. Army liked him as a defensive lineman. He was offered preferred walk-on status at Kansas, but he was spared playing for the recently fired Charlie Weis when he turned down the Jayhawks for Air Force.
Calhoun wasn’t sure about Griffin’s college position, but he thought it was on the offensive side of the ball. Air Force moved Griffin back and forth between linebacker and tight end entering his freshman year before tight ends coach Jake Moreland convinced Calhoun tight end was Griffin’s future.
“There had been some coaching changes when I got there, so I was kind of switching around,” Griffin said. “But then coach Moreland said, ‘You’re a tight end.’ I’ve been happy with that decision. He’s a great coach and an awesome guy.”
The 6-foot-4, 225-pounder saw limited playing time as a freshman, but he broke into the lineup as a sophomore. He was fourth on the team in catches with 13 for 163 yards and a touchdown.
Those are respectable numbers for a triple-option offense, but Air Force is learning more about Griffin’s potential this year. The Falcons’ passing game was limited by injuries and a suspension that resulted in Calhoun playing four quarterbacks in a 2-10 season. The musical chairs at quarterback forced Calhoun to simplify the playbook in his game plans.
“It was a combination of playing four quarterbacks and we were real young last year,” Griffin said. “We’re an experienced group this year and that has allowed us to open up the playbook.”
Griffin, in half the games he played a year ago, has nearly matched his 2013 total with 10 catches for 149 yards and one touchdown to rank third. The team’s two leading receivers, Jalen Robinette and Garrett Brown, are tied with 21.
In addition to Calhoun opening the playbook, Griffin credits senior quarterback Kale Pearson, for working hard on his physical rehab from a torn knee ligaments and on his passing.
Pearson, a senior who started the 2013 season-opening win but was injured in the second quarter, this season is directing an offense averaging 425.3 yards a game with 274.2 rushing and 151.2 passing. The 5-9, 175-pound senior from Tulsa Union has completed 57 of 98 passes for 798 yards with six touchdowns and one interception.
“Kale put in a lot of work,” Griffin said, “and I think our receiving corps is a talented group. It’s nice now that we can open up the offense. Teams were putting so many players in the box it was hard to run the ball. And the passing game opens up the running game. It was hard blocking for the running game last year.”
Griffin said he spent the summer “working on getting bigger and strong like I always do” and an expanded role in the playbook’s passing routes and blocking responsibilities.
“We adjusted our playbook that has me doing some perimeter blocking,” he said. “I wanted to improve my footwork for that aspect. I wanted to be more technically sound.”
Air Force missed a bowl game for the first time in Calhoun’s seven seasons, but they only need two wins in the final six for bowl eligibility. More importantly, they are in the driver’s seat to win the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophyfor the first time since 2011. Air Force defeated Navy 30-21 and can clinch the Trophy with a win over Army on Nov. 1 at Michie Stadium.
The Falcons are at home in a conference game Saturday against New Mexico (2-4, 0-2 MW) before a bye week and traveling to Wet Point.
“We had a real tough offseason,” Griffin said. “We worked the hardest since I’ve been here; we worked our tails off. The hard work we put in is showing in the games.”