Photo: Air Force last season at Michigan.
The service academies remain lumped together as triple-option offenses thanks to College Football Hall of Fame coach Fisher DeBerry. A generation ago he laid down the blueprint at Air Force on how to remain competitive with lightly recruited athletes.
But take a closer look in recent seasons.
Air Force lines up with a quarterback, fullback and tailback in either a pro-style with two wide receivers and a tight end or a college spread with three wideouts.
Army and Navy both still list traditional triple-option depth charts, but now Navy routinely drops into shotgun formations. Army, to a lesser degree, also tweaks its backfield formations.
Air Force offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen says the playbook the Falcons use under head coach Troy Calhoun is about “three or four times” bigger than one he studied as DeBerry’s quarterback in 2000, the year he was named Mountain West Conference offensive player of the year.
It’s called keeping defenses guessing.
Calhoun, who also was an Air Force quarterback before he returned to the academy from coaching in the NFL, decided more deception was especially necessary while playing in a conference.
“I think Navy is going to find this out,” Thiessen explained to me. “When you’re an independent you can schedule team, play them one time and never play them again. You can get under center and run double slot all day because they don’t have a clue what they’re doing to stop it. And then you never play them again. It’s awesome.
“But when you play Boise State in a conference game six years in a row, you can’t get away with that. You’ve got to be creative, even though you’re staying true to who you are as an option team. You’ve got to dress things up with a new wrinkle. You can’t tell (the defense) this is what we’re going to do and let them know it and not expect them to stop it. We’re going to get out-talented everywhere we go. This gives the offense an advantage.”
Navy is entering its fourth year as an American Athletic Conference member, while Army remains committed to independent status after a disastrous experience playing in Conference-USA from 1998 to 2004.
The Midshipmen shared the AAC West Division title in 2015 and won it outright 2016. But in 2017, Navy slipped to 4-4 in AAC play (7-7 overall) after losing only one conference game each year in ’15 and ’16.
A team’s record can’t be entirely blamed on the offense, but adding creatively to the scheme can make a difference on third- and fourth-down conversions and in close games. That’s why Calhoun changed Air Force’s base triple-option.
The academies still dominate NCAA rushing statistics despite recent tinkering. Army, which won the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy last season with wins over Air Force and Navy, led the nation with 362.3 yards a game. Navy was second at 351.4 and Air Force fourth (behind Arizona) at 307.4.
“We have to still be true to who we are with the option game,” Thiessen said, “but I think we complement it a little differently. We’ve got enough background on our staff to do some different things.”
Calhoun was the offensive coordinator of the Houston Texans after having served as an assistant with the Denver Broncos. Running backs/special teams coach Ben Miller was a lineman at Air Force but a fullback and tight end in the NFL. Receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield set an NCAA career receptions record at Purdue catching balls from Drew Brees in a spread offense.
Expanding the offense has altered Air Force recruiting, too. In the triple-option, running and blocking are the primary skills. Air Force has expanded its search for receivers that can make plays down field but still block. There also is a greater premium on a quarterback’s arm strength.
“I think we’re doing a good job of recruiting skill players that can make a play down the field,” Thiessen said. “Our receivers and running backs have to have that as part of their repertoire; they’re not just blockers. They have to have the skill set to do both for us to be a multiple talented team.”
DeBerry was brought to Air Force with his triple-option as a means for the Falcons to remain competitive in Division I football and his Falcons not only won three Western Athletic Conference titles. But of greater concern to Army and Navy was Air Force winning the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy 16-of-21 years from 1982 to 2002.
Army and Navy subsequently adapted with their own switches to the triple-options. Navy won the CiC seven years in a row from 2003 to 2009 and Air Force four of seven from 2010 to 2016. Army captured it in 2017 for the first time since 1996.
Times are changing as Air Force is again ahead of the game in academy football. Keep an eye on the Army and Navy tinkering with their backfields.
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Air Force opens the season Sept. 1 at home against Stony Brook, Army on Aug. 31 at Duke and Navy Sept. 1 at Hawaii.
In the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy series, Navy is at Air Force on Oct. 6, Air Force at Army on Nov. 3 and the Army-Navy Game is Dec. 8 in Philadelphia.
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