Dana Holgorsen’s West Virginia “Airraid” offense

Dana Holgorsen came to West Virginia to install his own brand of the Airraid offense, which was invented and developed by Hal Mumme and Mike Leach. Their offense had been somewhat inconsistent all year, but 70 points — in the Orange Bowl — is pretty much how you draw it up. Below are some links giving a primer to an offense — and a coach, and a system — I’ve long been studying.

– I explained in detail the history, evolution, and development of Holgorsen’s own unique brand of the Airraid — with added emphasis on the run game and play-action — over at Grantland earlier this season.

– Holgorsen often says that the key to the offense is less about the schemes than how they practice. As explained here, he says his offense can be explained in three days (with obviously some refinement later on).

– Further, see here for a primer on how Texas Tech set up their practices under Mike Leach. Holgorsen used this same framework at West Virginia.

– One of the major advances in Holgorsen’s offense beyond the traditional Airraid dropback pass game is his use of “packaged” concepts. At Grantland I discuss packaging pass concepts together; while here at Smart Football I discuss how Holgorsen combines run plays, screens, and quick passes all together in the same play. See also the video from ESPN on Holgorsen’s stick/draw concept.

– Make sure to read about the core Airraid plays. Note that Holgorsen doesn’t use “mesh,” one of the old Airraid staples. He does this because he moves players around differently than Leach did (he moves “H” and “Y” rather than “H” and “Z”).

– Like all Airraid teams, the screen game is imperative to Holgorsen’s offense. See here for information on the Airraid screen game and blocking drills.

– One of the big changes Holgorsen has made to his offense from the one run by Leach is to use multiple backs in the backfield — sometimes as many as three — in what he calls his “Diamond formation.” This link explains the theory and practice of that set.


This is a link to quick drawings of West Virginia’s offense versus Connecticut.

– Even older than Mumme and Leach, some of the roots of the West Virginia offense go back to the old one-back offense. Also, check out that link for discussion of the “one-back clinic,” which Dana and other spread offense aficonados go to every year.

  • Mr.Murder

    Got to the game after it was over for the most part. Announcers were talking about how WVU put up points running “the same screen plays” all game. Was fun to see him use the hand signals. Think he uses one signal for call and direction and if he does it twice they go the other way,etc. Only got to see three signals series with two plays but the action and screen were the same and the passer relayed that signal’s primary call.

    Think he’s taken the Boise style automatic screen game based on formational leverage and combined it with the main staple plays(all go and smash) of traditional air raid sets. Then over this he’s put the pistol with downhill deep play fakes similar to I formation concepts.

    Lateral stress from screens and jet action, vertical stress from pure speed spread out, traditional gap sound running can still be used though what was viewed an interesting item showed. They seemed to be going zone a lot, pretty wide spacing for blockers, but the right side zone men are spaced wider.

    This meant the back side gaps were tighter, closer to traditional spacing, and the front side had huge swaths for the quarterback’s dominant side. This is a possible merger of classic gap assignment blocking with modern wide array zone concepts such as Leach uses. To the passer’s dominant side he has more vision and wider gaps to see interior windows and throwing lanes open, and the end to that side has a far track to try and take on pass rushing. To the other side it is closer to classic principles and more likely to mirror man assignment blocking.

    It does two things. It accelerates blocking and it baits screens. They can slide linemen to the back side on half slide and still leave the tackle’s man far away from the ball’s starting point.

    Bet their screen priority mirrors something like Boise. Still is kind of unique. Rules blocking one way and zone the other.

  • ClarenceOveur

    I thoroughly enjoyed tonight’s Mountaineer victory for a number of reasons. Primarily because I’m a WVU alum, but also because I’ve been advocating Holgorsen’s offense on Mountaineer football message boards all season.  I’ve finally been vindicated, especially when it came to my contention that Holgorsen’s offensive scheme is anything but “passive” and “aphysical” (you still have to win the battles at the line of scrimmage to be successful, regardless of scheme). 

    The Clemson defense was visibly worn-out tonight, and the no-huddle, airraid scheme they faced played a huge part in that (several turnovers were also a factor).   Whether you tire a defense by way of a power running attack or a prolific passing scheme, being battered and bruised is just as exhausting as being winded and gasping for air.  Tired is tired is tired.  Besides, grinding out the clock and winning time of possession battles means jacksh*t when you can’t put points on the board, as Bill Stewart’s teams demonstrated for the past three seasons. 

    No one should be surprised to see Holgorsen’s system work so prolifically.  When the tempo, blocking and execution are there, it’s nearly impossible to stop.  As a WVU fan, I hope this is a sign of what’s to come with the Mountaineers (hopefully) heading to the Big 12 next season.

  • Anonymous

    This game got Cougar fans really excited and hopefully this is what we’ll see in a couple years.

  • Volstopfan

    Chris, does Holgersen use the same wide spacing and man blocking scheme that Leach uses? It appeared that they were using mostly zone running plays last night.

  • Volstopfan

    Chris, does Holgersen use the same wide spacing and man blocking scheme that Leach uses? It appeared that they were using mostly zone running plays last night.

  • Anonymous

    No. He does not use the big wide splits because of precisely the reason you mention: their run game is based on the inside and outside zone, and they use a lot of play-action off of both. Leach used a “zone” play but with his splits it was really all man blocking. Historically Hal Mumme literally had two run plays: a one-back draw and a lead draw. It’s one of the difference’s with Dana’s offense compared to Mike’s.

    The actual run schemes are basic though they do mess around with where they insert the fullback when they use one, i.e. backside seal, frontside LBer, backside LB, etc.

  • Mr.Murder

    Maybe it was the camera angle, but it looked like right side blockers were actually wider from two different views in the game’s close where they were more likely to run or screen and take time off the board….

  • Mr.Murder

    Look at the link of your Conn diagrams for WVA. The stick is diagrammed, did not view your video link side but it is explained the same. Now look at the other diagrams and they match the same thing. Zone style runs and screens to the right, more help/man blocking set up to the left. Backside blockers are closer to one another for folding over blockers in the cross block up the middle from guard/center or for their guard led screen to the weak side.

    The technique matches overall difference for certain spacing favoring plays certain directions.

    It isn’t that dramatic a difference but it is different. Shoe length splits are different than a yard or two difference on the same play for different ends of the line.

  • Volstopfan

    So is Dana using zone pass protection as well?

  • Bmalbasa

    Did anyone notice the frequency with which WVU linemen seemed to protect for 2 seconds, then leak out as if on a screen, during down-field passing plays.  My suspicion is that Holgerson has a concept route tied to a slow screen.  The QB takes the concept (ie. stick) if it is there, then has the option to throw a late screen.

    I am curious to hear if others have thoughts on this.

  • Anonymous

    Check back here early on Wednesday morning. I put together some video cut-ups breaking down this and some other concepts.  It will go live then.

  • Bmalbasa

    Thanks so much — there is a reason that this is my favorite website!

  • Andrew Maroe

    Aren’t most protection schemes zone schemes? 

  • Volstopfan

    Yes, but Mike Leach uses a man scheme in his air raid.

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