The Air Raid Offense: History, Evolution, Weirdness – From Mumme to Leach to Franklin to Holgorsen and Beyond

The personal story of the rise and development of the Air Raid offense, the story of the men who developed and mastered it — its originators, Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, as well as coaches like Tony Franklin and Dana Holgorsen – has been told many times and told very well. The offense itself, however — its raw structure, plays, and formations — nevertheless deserves deeper study given its incredible rise, its increasing importance, and and its almost shocking omnipresence, in one form or another, at every level of football.

Let’s call a pass

But the Air Raid’s evolution over time has been even more fascinating than the playbook at any one moment. To paraphrase Holmes, a playbook is but a crystal, transparent and unchanged; it cannot express the pressures and influences leading to its existing or give any indication as how it will continue to be shaped and reshaped over time. Indeed, the coaches who’ve taught and learned the Air Raid have changed, the players and formations have changed, and even the plays themselves have changed. The offense, however, remains, both shaped by these coaches and their players and somehow shaping each of them in the process. The wishbone and the Wing-T were playbooks, Bill Walsh’s West Coast offense a meticulous method of gameplanning,  but the Air Raid is something more akin to an idea, or at least several related ones: that to get an advantage in modern football you need to be particularly good at something, and to be good at something you have to commit to that something, and if you’re going to commit to something it might as well be different. And thus the principles underlying the Air Raid exist externally from the many coaches who have taught it: a diligent, many-reps approach to practice; a pass-first and spread the wealth philosophy; and, above all else, a willingness to live in the extremes, to do things just a bit differently, to be willing, in a game where conformity is king, to be just a little bit weird.

This article is therefore less about the blood and tissue of the Air Raid’s story — the personal stories of the men like Mumme and Leach who shaped the offense, though there is some of that too — but is instead about its bones: the history and evolution of the actual formations, plays, concepts, and gameplans that made up what you saw on some random Saturday a decade ago and make up what you will see on Saturdays this fall. This story is too complex of course for a single article, but we can still distill the broad themes and focus on four main storylines: the classical period, including the birth of the Air Raid from its BYU roots and the original two-back package used at Valdosta State and Kentucky; Leach’s Texas Tech era, where the head pirate-in-charge tweaked the offense and as a result the Air Raid found a home in the southwest and flourished like it never had before; the offense’s bubbling up from the high school ranks, led by former outcast Tony Franklin and his Tony Franklin System; and the next generation of Air Raid innovators, led by Dana Holgorsen and others, who have begun the work of deconstructing the offense for a modern and ever-changing game.

The Classical Period: Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State, and Kentucky

When LaVell Edwards, head coach at BYU, decided that he wanted to throw the ball around, he and his offensive coordinator Doug Scovil looked to the NFL for inspiration. Scovil brought with him to BYU the core pass plays he’d learned there, which in fact were Sid Gillman’s core pass plays: vertical stretches, horizontal stretches, and man beating routes. These plays were almost not even plays at all, but concepts that serve as the building blocks of every passing offense. Gillman, decades earlier, had the simple insight that if one properly allocated receivers across the field at varying depths with space between them, no zone defense could cover them.

Although the offense only has five potential receivers while the defense can drop seven, eight, or even nine men into coverage, if the offense can always threaten both vertically and underneath, the field is simply too large for a zone defense to cover a well orchestrated passing attack. And if zone defenses could not stop such passing, then passing concepts could be constructed to also defeat the inevitable man coverage they’d face through the route choices that placed those receivers around the field. Defenses, in turn, would have to find ways to bring pressure to disrupt this design, and thus the cat-and-mouse game between offense and defense would continue on that basis. Gillman revolutionized offense, but Scovil and Edwards streamlined it so that college kids — and not professionals — could excel with Gillman’s pro-style concepts. The story of the Air Raid over the last twenty years is simply this story retold over and over again.

Mumme, Leach, and company famously made many pilgrimages to BYU during this time, including back when Mumme was still at Copperas Cove as a high school coach. There they studied everything about BYU’s system and essentially stole it verbatim, except they eventually began adding their own wrinkles based on their experiences: they began using more and more shotgun, more spread sets, ceased flipping their formations, and generally tailored the offense to what their players — high school and small college athletes — could do.

The idea behind the “original” Air Raid package was very simple; indeed, originally, it was just the Hal Mumme and Mike Leach translation of the old BYU playbook. (I’ve included the old BYU passing game playbook at the bottom of this article as an appendix.) Mumme and Leach added a bit more shotgun and threw the ball more often than even LaVell Edwards had. Over time, too, they began tweaking the plays — changing this route here, altering this there — and, most importantly, tailoring the schemes not to an NFL quarterback, or even the great college quarterbacks BYU had like Steve Young, Jim McMahon, or Ty Detmer, but instead average high school and small college quarterbacks like Dustin Dewald at Iowa Wesleyan and Chris Hatcher and Lance Funderburk at Valdosta State.

While at Valdosta, they primarily engaged in addition by subtraction. They cut out a few passing plays that weren’t as useful, shrank the running game to little more than an “iso” lead play and a draw, and, most famously, made the offense asymmetrical: Instead of running each play in one direction and having “right” and “left” variations on each formation, they made the offense entirely right-handed, always putting the tight-end or “Y” receiver to the right and the split-end or “X” to the left, and only moving “Z” around. Both Leach and Mumme have said they were inspired to do this after a conversation with former Baltimore Colts great Raymond Berry, who told them that was exactly how he and Unitas and the rest of the Colts did it. If you flip all of your formations, every time you teach a route — say, a curl or a slant — each receiver actually has to learn two routes, because he has to learn it from both the right and left sides. And the quarterback has to get used to throwing it to each receiver to his left and to his right, depending on each receiver’s quirks. The number of techniques each quarterback had to learn would grow rather quickly.

Further, Berry said, he developed multiple ways to run each route depending on the leverage of the defense; if they asked him to line up to both sides he either had to give up those subtle variations or had to learn to run each of them to both sides, which was nigh impossible. Instead, he learned to run his routes on one side, and Unitas learned how to throw them to him on that side. Once Mumme and his staff made that change at Valdosta, the completion percentage of their quarterback at the time, Chris Hatcher, jumped roughly ten percentage points and he went on to win the Harlon Hill trophy, known colloquially as the Heisman trophy for D-II. Hatcher would of course go on to become an assistant to Mumme at Kentucky and is now the head coach at Murray State.

At this stage, the core of the offense was made up of a few five- and seven-step drop passing plays, specifically Mesh, All-Curl, 93 Wheel, Y-Sail, and Y-Cross. Let’s take a quick look at each play:

“92″: The infamous “Mesh”

No play is more synonymous with the Air Raid than the “mesh” concept, which was directly taken from the old BYU offense. The name of the play refers to the two receivers, Y and X, who run shallow crosses in opposite directions. The rule is that the Y “sets the depth of the mesh,” meaning he works to about six yards deep, while it is X’s job to come directly underneath him — in practice they begin by touching hands as they run by — to ensure there is no space between them. It is, at core, a “rub” route, known more derisively by defensive players and coaches as a “pick” play. It’s not illegal because the receivers do not actually seek to pick defenders but instead simply get on their paths and run by each other, forcing defenders to go around them. Meanwhile, the runningbacks both check-release — meaning they look for potential blitzers — and then release quickly to the flats.

The key innovation from Mumme on the play was to change Z’s route from a post, which is what it was in the old BYU system, to a corner route. This transforms the play into a triangle read on the frontside, with the corner, X on the shallow and F in the flat creating the triangle, which puts both a high/low and a horizontal stretch on a zone defense. Further, the corner route had some ability to adjust: against man defenses and in the red zone, it was a true corner route run at 45 degrees and to the pylon, thrown with arc; against a soft corner the receiver bent it flat underneath the dropping defender, so it become more of a true out route. At all turns, the theory was for the quarterback and receiver to simply find the “open grass.”

“96″: All-Curl

The All-Curl concept is one that is as old as the passing game itself. It goes directly back to Sid Gillman and is a true horizontal stretch. Once each receiver has run his route, there are five receivers facing the quarterback, and against any three-deep zone defense with four underneath defenders, there should always be a receiver open. They had different ways of reading the play too; their preference was to read it from the Y to the backside X, but would read the frontside against certain weak rotating coverages. Early on at Kentucky Mumme essentially spoonfed Tim Couch and told him which way to read it; as time went on he and other quarterbacks were given more freedom.

“93″: H-Wheel

This somewhat off-beat play developed out of a few BYU routes. One was the desire to run the curl/wheel combination, especially given that the H in the Air Raid ran to the flat so often the wheel was a nice change-up. But BYU also had a play called “Y-Option” or “Y-Choice,” and the pivot route by the Y receiver on this play — essentially as an outlet — was a way to incorporate the concept. This is just one of the examples of a play that began with BYU but changed forms a few times before it started showing up on Air Raid whiteboards. And in 1997 at Kentucky, Mumme’s preferred way of calling the play was actually from trips, shown below, with the Z receiver on the left in-between the X and H.

“93″: Trips H-Wheel

Kentucky used this variant a lot in that first season because the read was so simple — the curl usually came wide open — and it was the call for the game-winner (though from a two-back set) for the Couch-to-Yeast overtime gamewinner when Kentucky beat Alabama in 1997, their first time beating the Crimson Tide in over 75 years.

“94″: Y-Sail

When Mumme saw man-to-man defenses, as were prevalent in the SEC, he liked the Mesh concept. But against zones he tended to call one of his two “flood” plays, his strongside flood or “Y-Sail” concept being the first. The play looked like most three level “vertical stretch” plays, with a deep receiver (Z), a short receiver (F) and an intermediate one (Y). On this play Y had some flexibility: he could run a true corner route to the soft spot in a zone, or he could stick his foot and break flat on a true “out” route. Or he could break to the outside but then settle up in the first open window.

On the backside, the H check-released to the flat (sensing a theme here?) while the X ran a dig route — burst to ten, fake running the post, then break flat across the field at fifteen yards. The theory was that the only way a zone defense could defend the frontside flood is if it over-rotated to that side; if it did then the quarterback could step up and work the backside dig combination. (Note that Mumme often had the backside receiver also run either a curl or a post-curl; it often depended on the speed of the receiver he had there.)

Further, at this time the four verticals play was not a main feature of the Air Raid (more on that in a moment), and so the vertical route by Z on Y-Sail and the vertical by X in Y-Cross below were the main “shot” routes in the offense. This was simply built into the ball-control nature of the passing game, but it also was a reason why the Air Raid developed a reputation as a dink-and-dunk offense. This was something the next generation of Air Raid coaches — as well as Leach himself — would specifically address.

“95″: Y-Cross

Behind only the Mesh concept, Y-Cross is the route I think of most when I think of the classic Air Raid. While back then the offense didn’t feature a lot of vertical, over-the-top types of routes, Y-Cross was the main “big play” generator for them. First, the X receiver had a lot of freedom to run either a true “Go” or vertical route, or to bend it back inside into more of a post if the near safety vacated the area. His job was to take the top off of the defense. Second, the Y receiver worked his deep cross — “under Sam and over Mike,” meaning inside the strongside linebacker and over the top and behind the middle linebacker — to a spot 22 yards deep to the opposite side of the field. And underneath the H, typically the halfback, ran a true option route. He burst to about five yards deep, essentially right at the weakside linebacker, and either broke his route outside, inside, or settled up in an open void against zones. He was taught to basically “step on the toes” of the weakside linebacker before making his break. The Z on the backside ran the dig route while the F leaked to the flat as the outlet.

The Air Raiders called this Y-Cross but Sid Gillman used to call it simply what it was: weakside flood. It’s the exact same concept as the Y-Sail, except the Y is coming from the opposite side of the formation. This too made it a nice change-up to the Y-Sail and Mesh concepts that Mumme ran so often, and if a team tried to overplay the Air Raid’s inherent right-handed nature, Y-Cross was there to hit them to the backside.

This route concept came directly from BYU; LaVell Edwards spoke about it many times and it was one of their best passes, and Mumme ripped it off verbatim. The only difference was the increased freedom he gave the X receiver to get deep, and that he changed the read slightly. In the BYU version, the H on the option route was the primary, and they only threw the deep cross if the defense came up to take him away. Mumme, by contrast, liked to read everything consistently deep-to-short. The concern was that the defense would overplay the cross and you needed to hit the halfback to get the cross open behind him, but Mumme’s teams threw the ball short to the runningbacks so often the linebackers were already predisposed to giving up the cross behind them. And there was no concern about not hitting the option route enough; in Mumme’s first two years at Kentucky, his “H” runningback, Anthony White, caught 59 passes in 1997 and 78 in 1998, in each case in only eleven games, many of them on H-option.

WR Tunnel Screen

Arguably the biggest innovation Mumme and his staff brought to the SEC was the introduction of the receiver “tunnel screen,” a predecessor to the wide variety of receiver screens you see today, from jailbreaks to “now” screens or “rocket” screens and many others. At the same time Purdue was making widespread use of the “bubble screen” as an at-the-line check in the Big Ten to hurt stodgy 4-3 teams that didn’t deign to walk their linebackers out to Purdue’s slot receivers, but Mumme’s use of the tunnel screen was audacious: Any down, any distance, against any defense, he was going to throw a none-yard pass to a receiver and let him try to make a play. Whether or not you think this innovation was ingenious or nefarious likely depends on your view of the many such receiver screens ever-present throughout every level of football today. But in 1997 teams were really not prepared for it, and the bottom line was that Kentucky could not throw the ball fifty times a game like they wanted to entirely by dropping back and pass protecting. Instead they needed to get the ball to the perimeter, fast, and wear out the great defensive lines they faced. The tunnel screens gave them a way to do it.

At that time Chris Hatcher, the former Mumme quarterback who had then become a Mumme assistant, liked to say that Kentucky thought of themselves as a well-coached backyard team. This insight — at a place like Kentucky, at least — was ingenious, because almost all of Kentucky’s post-Bear Bryant history had shown that it could not compete playing the same brand of football as everyone else in the SEC. Instead they needed to change the game into something different, something, well, weird. Mumme and his staff knew they couldn’t beat the big SEC powers — or just about anyone in the SEC at all — playing normal, regular football. They could only beat them playing something more like back yard football, and the tunnel screen was the chief symbol. Because while you may not be able to run right up and knock down guys who are bigger, stronger, and faster than you, you might, on the other hand, be able to do this:

You’re not supposed to be able to throw a tunnel screen against Cover 1 press man, and your all-everything quarterback is not supposed to be sixty yards downfield throwing a (borderline illegal) block. But it was Mummeball in 1997, and it was weird, and yet despite all the weirdness it was only a taste of what was to come. And it began that following season in 1998. But first, below are coaching film game cut-ups of the main concepts from the 1997 season.

If I have my history right, the original “One-Back Clinic” was held at Washington State before the 1998 season. Mike Price, then the head coach of Washington State was there, as was Mike Leach, along with the other spread and pass-first guys. There weren’t many of them, back then. But it was an interesting group. For Kentucky, that offseason they made a few tweaks to their offense that have become very famous today. The first was that they wanted to use more one-back sets, largely because they became more comfortable that their quarterback, Tim Couch, would be able to find his hot receivers. And they also wanted to run more crossing routes. So it was that offseason they introduced the Air Raid “shallow cross series,” which, for the high school teams that run the Air Raid, may be the most popular concept out of all of them.

Mumme got the actual series from Mike Shanahan, then head coach of the Denver Broncos, but it’s unclear to me how much Mumme synthesized it in the translation. The concept was classic Air Raid: They really could only run it from one set — with two receivers to each side — but within that limitation they had ultimate variation.

Shallow Cross

The key for the play was to have the shallow come from one side and the square-in or “Hunt” route come from the other. The Hunt route was just a ten yard square-in, where the receiver had the flexibility to settle in any open void. The outside receivers ran vertical routes while the runningback check-released to a short hook to the side the shallow came from. The variation came in that they could call any receiver to run the shallow: “Y Shallow,” is shown above, showing the tight-end running the shallow cross and H on the Hunt route. But “Z Shallow” would look similar, but with Z running the shallow cross, the Y outside releasing to a vertical route, with H on the Hunt backside. Or they could call “H Shallow” or “X Shallow,” with the designated receiver running from left to right and the Y running the Hunt. It’s the same play and concept, but allowed them to vary who they wanted to get the ball to based on game plan or mismatch. I never saw Kentucky run this once in 1997, but it emerged in 1998 as a key play and, as time would go on, has stayed a mainstay in the Air Raid. It’s hard to imagine the Air Raid before the true shallow cross play, but that shows the fluidity the offense has shown over the years. The shallow cross was always there in spirit, if not always in practice, and once it was introduced it was a perfect fit.

The 1998 season was a fairly successful one, ending with the Wildcats in a New Years Day bowl (once upon a time a bigger thing than it is now, though the Outback Bowl has never been confused with the Rose Bowl).

Kentucky would return to a bowl game in 1999 despite replacing almost its entire offense, and Mumme seemed on top of the world. Losses and NCAA violations made sure that that wasn’t the case, and that brief moment of wonderful weirdness vanished as quickly as it came. But it was the introduction of the wider world to the Air Raid — and introduction that notched several big wins in the Air Raid’s records, including against SEC opponents — and as such it was the launching pad for a number of careers and a shocking amount of the innovation we’ve seen in the last decade. And along the way the Air Raid has evolved along with its chief practitioners, and there is no one in the history of the offense who stands taller than Mumme’s one-time right-hand man, the mercurial Mike Leach. But, before we leave Mumme behind — and indeed, Mumme is still throwing it around, albeit at McMurry — below are some clips of him explaining his offense back in that Kentucky era, courtesy of dacoachmo at one of the original one-back clinics:

Leach’s Odyssey: Four Wides, Four Verticals

Dana Holgorsen, in his usual fashion, has a very direct and succinct answer when asked about Mike Leach’s spin on the Air Raid: “Leach is so good because he don’t change shit.” When Leach first went to Oklahoma, the lack of change to the classical Air Raid was by design, as Bob Stoops, the new first-year head coach at OU, simply wanted to hire Kentucky’s offense. He had observed the difficulty of defending the Air Raid first hand while at Florida. Despite the wide talent disparity between Kentucky and Florida — and the fact that Florida won its matchups against Mumme fairly handily, he found the offense extremely difficult to defend and thus, once Stoops became a head coach in a turnaround situation at Oklahoma, he wanted a guy who could install the Air Raid exactly as Mumme ran it at Kentucky. That coach ended up being the mercurial Mike Leach. As the video cut-ups from Leach’s first year at Oklahoma show, he really did install the Kentucky “original” Air Raid package almost verbatim. The one difference was a harbinger of some changes for the future: the increased use of true four-wide, one-back sets. This change might’ve begun as almost a stylistic difference from the Mumme’s preferred approach, which featured more two-back sets, but would necessarily lead the next evolutions in the Air Raid, which of course took place at Texas Tech.

Mike Leach’s success at Texas Tech needs no introduction. His teams blitzkrieged the previously conservative Big 12 conference, frequently leading the nation in passing yards and total offense, and not only did he have success with his own team but he had an outsized effect on the rest of football in the southwest, on his own conference and high schools across Texas.

But his teams weren’t an instant success at Tech. They threw the ball successfully and went to bowl games, but it wasn’t until the 2002 season, when his quarterback Kliff Kingsbury was a senior, that the offense truly exploded. Leach himself told his story in his book, and I trace some of the schematic evolutions at play in mine. At that point, first with Kingsbury but then during an incredible run of four straight fifth-year senior quarterbacks, and then finally with Graham Harrell and Michael Crabtree in 2008, the “pure” Air Raid turned into one of the best attacks in football history, shredding defenses and record books at an alarming rate.

The changes Leach made were not major, but they were important. While he kept the basic structure of the offense basically the same as what he and Mumme had used at Kentucky, he did make some changes, many of them necessitated by his increased use of a four-wide receiver set, rather than the two-back look they had used at Kentucky. These changes were: (1) wide linemen splits, (2) running some concepts through the left “inside receiver”, the “H” receiver, as well as through the “Y” receiver, and (3) the increased focus and adaptation of four verticals.

Linemen splits. It was impossible to flip over to a Texas Tech game and not be shocked at the enormous amount of space between the offensive linemen, at least as compared with other teams. The trend across football had been a tightening and homogenization of line splits as every team seemed to go to a basic inside zone/outside zone running game, and on the outside zone in particular teams used relatively small splits. But then there was Leach’s Red Raider offense. It was weird stuff, but there was method to the madness.

In the game cut-ups from Leach’s year at Oklahoma you can clearly see his move to a four-wide set and, with it, some of the advantages of that approach in terms of having another immediate downfield receiving threat and a clearer picture for the quarterback. But the clips also show some issues the Sooners had in pass protection, particularly against Colorado and Texas as they used blitzes from safeties and outside defenders who came free. Back then, the primary response was either for the quarterback to check the play to a quick pass, to try to identify a hot receiver to throw the ball quickly to, or to bring an inside receiver in “orbit” motion (where he goes one direction and then pivots back to the opposite directly) and essentially become an extra runningback to check release after watching for the extra blocker. These worked but were unsatisfactory answers. The solution Leach came up with were these maximum splits, which had the effect of (a) stretching the defensive line from sideline to sideline, lengthening the space they had to rush from and (b) making any extra interior blitzers or guys who wanted to shoot the gaps more obvious. In terms of the passing game, Leach felt that it put his guys at a significant advantage. As he put it:

To me, the ultimate offenses in terms of distribution are what we do and the old school wishbone offense and both of them have wide splits with their lineman. We would do it for zone run lanes and pass blocking assignments because the edge guys are now wider from the QB than they would be. We start out at three feet. If we had no trouble in blocking them than we would widen, if we had trouble then we’d tighten them. Defenses would try to keep a guy in the middle of a gap and shoot that gap, if they did that we would keep it at three feet. We would just take deeper drop steps to get angles in our run game. No defenses ever had success in doing that [shooting gaps] against us because, again, it wasn’t something they would consistently do so they weren’t comfortable in doing it. They’re not good at just shooting gaps because they haven’t done it except for three practices in preparing to defend us.

The interplay of the wide line splits with the run game was also interesting, however. The wide line splits made it impossible to use double-teams like traditional zone running teams did, and as a result it was more about each lineman blocking his man one-on-one. But, because the only time Leach wanted to run the ball is if the numbers in the box were extremely favorable, the wide line splits helped his linemen in their run blocking because they almost always had angles. If the defense tried to stretch out with his linemen, there were almost always running lanes inside; if they tried to pinch down and shoot the gaps, it was easy enough for his linemen to block down and seal the edge for his runners to scoot around edge. And while his teams weren’t known for their rushing prowess, they did have some success. In 2008, for example, Leach’s top two rushers combined for 1,475 yards on over 5.8 yards per carry.

At one time or another, Leach coached every position on offense, including offensive line. And he had strong views of how line should be played, and both he and Mumme firmly believed in the value of one-on-one battles. While slide pass protection and zone blocking have increasingly become the rage, Leach always focused on “man blocking,” where the goal was to win the battle versus the guy across from you. The wide splits were simply that principle taken to its extreme: each lineman split out enough to where he was essentially on an island, as far from the quarterback as possible. On the line, at least, the goal was actually to have as many one-on-one matchups as possible. And Leach was confident his guys would win them.

Bilateral concepts: H-Stick, H-Corner. As discussed in The Essential Smart Football, at Texas Tech Mike Leach had an unrecruited, undersized slot receiver named Wes Welker playing the “H” position. In the classic Air Raid, “H” was so named because he was the halfback and was actually a runningback; in Leach’s four-wide receiver nearly all the time look, he was a slot receiver. And, if your slot receiver is Wes Welker, you’ve got a pretty good one. As a result Leach made some of the traditional Air Raid plays — Y-Stick and Y-Corner, specifically — bilateral, by introducing H-Stick and H-Corner. Note that this didn’t violate the Raymond Berry principle before, as Welker still only lined up in limited spots and didn’t have to learn a plethora of new routes, but it did let Leach run the concept to both sides.

Both Y-Stick and Y-Corner were plays Mumme and Leach used at least as far back as Kentucky, though it was only over time that they eventually became key Air Raid staples. At Kentucky in 1998, Y-Corner was rarely called at all, and at Oklahoma in 1999 it similarly was not a featured play. Y-Stick was a bit more prominent, but it too was more of a supporting pass concept and the goal of the play was more about throwing it to the runningback in the flat than hitting the quick stick. At Texas Tech, however, the two plays became centerpieces of the offense; indeed, there were years at Texas Tech where each play was called more often than staples like Mesh and Y-Cross. And a big reason for that is because Leach — and his quarterback — could call them to either side of the field.

As I’ve explained elsewhere, Stick and Corner (also known as “Snag”), are essentially the same read: They both create a “triangle” stretch on the defense, combining both a high/low stretch and an inside/outside or horizontal stretch in the same concept. This makes them particularly adept at attacking a limited number of zone defenders in a given part of the field. In other words, even when he didn’t know exactly what coverage the defense was in, Leach could call Stick and Corner, isolate vulnerable defenders with good, well organized routes, and get a positive completion.

H-Stick

Stick is very simple: The outside receiver runs a fade with a mandatory outside release to pull defenders; the runningback (or the inside slot in trips) runs to the flat in the form of either a swing, shoot or true out route; and the inside receiver runs a “stick” route where he pushes to five-to-six yards between the Mike and Sam (middle and strongside) linebackers, plants his outside foot and turns his numbers inside to the quarterback. Against zone defenses the stick runner tries to find the open void and shuffle slightly outside, whereas against man-to-man he may plant his foot and pivot to the outside. The quarterback’s job is to throw the ball quickly to the slot to his outside number, away from the interior defenders and so that he may catch the ball and turn upfield.

On the backside, the inside slot runs a one step slant and is available as a “hot” throw against a blitz, while the outside receiver runs a three-step slant. Against man or outside leverage zone he plants and breaks flat inside. Against soft coverage, it essentially turns into a hitch. (Note that this was something Leach changed from the classic Air Raid, which had that backside receiver run a “slant-return” route.) The quarterback determined whether to throw frontside or backside simply depending on where the “most open grass” was. The only difference between Y-Stick and H-Stick — H-Stick being with Welker as the stick runner — was that all the assignments switched, though the alignments did not. Below are some clips of Stick, courtesy of Trojan Football Analysis (look at how good Welker was at getting straight upfield after the catch on “618 H” in the below clips).

Corner is the same basic concept — a high/low stretch combined with an inside/outside one — except how they get there is altered slightly. Now, the slot runs deep via his corner route and the outside receiver runs inside, while the runningback still runs to the flat. The corner route is an 8-10 yard corner (on the short side to mesh with the quick game timing), while the outside receiver runs a one-step slant to the inside, with the ability to settle in an open void against zones. Again, it’s the same concept as Stick — just a simple ball-control triangle read — but by varying the routes Leach could call the same concepts over and over while still keeping the defense off balance. Below are clips of Y-Corner and H-Corner, again courtesy of TFA:

Four Verticals. That Leach came to embrace the four verticals play was really no secret, and was of course a logical extension of his other changes: how do you become a four wide team without running four verticals? But it took him some time and, as with everything else, he had to do it his way. As I’ve discussed previously and as his then staffers — Dana Holgorsen, Sonny Dykes, Bill Bedenbaugh and Bob Anae — laid out in this coaching clinic article, he transformed four verticals into a read-on-the-run-find-the-open-spots wherever they are play.

“6″ – Four Verticals

While each receiver was given a landmark they had to get to in order to stretch the appropriately stretch the defense, they were given lots of freedom to settle down their route or even break it off if they found open space along the way. So while the play was known as four verticals, the instruction was really, “Stay in your vertical lane, but then get open.” And with this play as its new centerpiece, Leach’s offense really exploded. Combined with an extra game in the season and some rules changes for the clocks, what had been “good seasons” previously became pedestrian. Under Leach’s tutelage in 1999, Josh Heupel re-wrote every Oklahoma passing record around as he threw for 3,850 yards and 30 touchdowns, by all accounts a monstrous season statistically. Just a few years later in 2003, equipped with wide splits, H-Stick and H-Corner, and a fully refined Four Verticals, B.J. Symons threw for 5,833 yards and 52 touchdowns.

And yet, while Leach was at Texas Tech spreading the good news of the Air Raid his way — namely, by blitzkrieging opponents with barrages of points and yards — the offense had begun taking hold in another fashion. While Michael Lewis mused on whether the NFL would ever try Leach’s experimental offense, high schools across the country did exactly that. And they didn’t do it the traditional way, merely by watching games on Saturdays and visiting Lubbock in the spring, though plenty took that approach. Instead, they did something far different, far more radical: they went out and bought the offense, complete with installation guides, DVDs, flash drives, diagrams, and practice tapes. The Air Raid was for sale, and it was (and remains) a great product. Viva la capitalism.

Tony Franklin’s System: Air Raid for the Masses

A few years ago, no doubt going for a real life Friday Night Lights, MTV developed a show about a community obsessed with their high school football team, Hoover High. The show was called Two-A-Days, and it featured the usual assortment of teenage angst over dates and playing time, though in Hoover MTV did select a rather intriguing squad, given that at the time they were deemed the mythical #1 high school team in the country. It was not good television, but, for whatever it’s worth, Hoover played good football. They won four straight Alabama 6A titles from 2002-2005, and added another to make it five titles before MTV had begun filming.

Hoover had not always been very good at football, however, and when their head coach, Rush Probst, took over in 1999, he needed an edge. He got it by contacting an unemployed, cast-off, blackballed and essentially dead broke coach by the name of Tony Franklin. When Hal Mumme was hired to Kentucky in 1997, he more or less knew what he wanted from his staff. He had a recruiting coordinator, Claude Bassett, a guy he’d admired back when Claude was at BYU. He had his receivers coach and offensive coordinator, Mike Leach, as Leach had followed him around for decades. He had his offensive line coach, former NFL player Guy Morriss. And he had a graduate assistant to help with tight-ends, his former Harlan Hill winning quarterback, Chris Hatcher. All he needed was a runningbacks coach. On Mumme’s staff at Valdosta had been a young coach named Dana Holgorsen, a former player for Mumme at Iowa Wesleyan, who had gone on to Mississippi College to have a larger hand in coordinating an offense. But Holgorsen had no connections to Kentucky — to the south at all, really — and instead Mumme looked for a local coach, maybe a high school coach, who could coach runningbacks and help be an outreach arm into the community. He found his man in Tony Franklin, a high school coach there in Kentucky.

For three years under Mumme, Franklin did a nice job with the runningbacks, helped design the game plans with respect to run plays and pass protection, and, from the New Year’s Day Bowl game at the end of the 1998 season and Kentucky’s first back-to-back bowl game in ages at the end of the 1999 season put Mumme and his whole staff in high regard around the country. This high regard resulted in the hiring off of several of Mumme’s staff, when Leach left for Oklahoma before the 1999 season and when Chris Hatcher, now a full-time a assistant, left to become head coach of Valdosta State before the 2000 year. The offseason for the 2000 season got off to a tumultuous start when Mumme — in the middle of the summer, after spring practice ended — publicly announced that the prior year’s starting quarterback, the workmanlike but unspectacular Dusty Bonner, was being benched in favor of a strong-armed true freshman named Jared Lorenzen. No one had confused Bonner with Tim Couch, Mumme’s former star pupil and the top overall draft pick of the Cleveland Browns, but Bonner had led the SEC in passing and passing efficiency in his first year as a starter, and did it with an extremely depleted receiving corps. Yet Mumme liked Lorenzen’s stronger arm, and he made his switch. Bonner had been a pre-season All-SEC pick; if you’re going to make a move like that, you better be right, or the natives will be restless.

Kentucky’s 2000 season went about as badly as can be imagined. Lorenzen had several huge passing days — including 528 yards against Georgia — but almost all of them came in losing efforts as Kentucky limped to a 2-9 record. (Dusty Bonner transferred over the summer to play for Hatcher at Valdosta State, where he won the Harlan Hill trophy — twice.) Worse still, Claude Bassett, Mumme’s favored recruiting coordinator, was exposed in a variety of payola scandals and a plethora of recruiting violations. On the field, Franklin and Mumme’s relationship turned icy; despite Franklin’s title as offensive coordinator and Mumme’s role as playcaller, the two of them essentially ceased speaking to each other for the entire second half of the season. But things took a dramatic turn when the NCAA came calling on Kentucky.

Franklin: If you go back and you look at the $1,400 money order, how stupid, if you’re going to be a guy who is going to cheat, to sit and yell at someone across a hall to come to you, give them $1,400 bucks and say, go send this to Tim Thompson at Melrose. I mean, that’s — to me, that’s publicly flaunting the cheating.

[...]

Farrey: There’s no love lost between Bassett and Franklin . . . but on this they agree – cheating is still common in some college football programs.

Bassett: There’s the pressure to go to bowl games. There’s the pressure to win the SEC East. There’s the pressure to, you know, obviously now the thing we call the BCS. But to say that I was one lone crazy guy, no, I don’t buy into that.

Franklin: Was [Bassett] the only person who should be taking the fall? Absolutely not, and, you know, I make that point in my book. I said in the book that I felt like that Coach Mumme knew.

Farrey: Franklin implicates the leadership at Kentucky. He cites a conversation last December with Larry Ivy, Kentucky’s athletic director.

Franklin: You know, we were talking about the Memphis situation and Mr. Ivy said to me, you know, “Every now and then you got to cheat to get a good player.”

After the 2000 season Franklin resigned and Mumme and Bassett were fired**. Franklin found himself, as he described it, blackballed from all coaching jobs.  Franklin, essentially broke, wrote a book about the ordeal, figuring his life in coaching was over. Franklin, however, got a call from Probst, who asked if he wouldn’t mind consulting for Hoover High School; much like Bob Stoops hiring Mike Leach, Probst wants Franklin to help him install the Air Raid at Hoover High. He does, and they do, and the rest — all those state titles — is history.

But Franklin didn’t stop there. Seeing an opportunity — he knows the offense and has proven it can be taught at the high school level — he began consulting with lots of schools and developing lots of materials. Indeed, Franklin, tapping into that network of coaches that was the reason Mumme hired him in the first place, packages, brands, and begins selling the Air Raid — now, The Tony Franklin System or simply, The System — for around $3000 a team. But $3000 got you more than just the plays (you could have always found those on Smart Football at least as far back as 2003), but instead got you gobs of information, drill tapes, installation guides, gameplans, and, most important of all, a direct line to Tony: Weekly calls to discuss whatever problems your team was facing, what adjustments you needed to make, how you could make it work. Remember, this was the early- to mid-2000s, and the changes we saw in the NFL and college were even more dramatic at the high school levels. Areas of the south like Kentucky, Alabama, or even Texas had been dominated by run-oriented programs for decades. Suddenly, the pass was the thing, and how in the world do you teach the passing game to high school kids without undergoing years of growing pains? Simple: You hire Tony, a successful college coach with a simple, straightforward system and proven results, to hold your hand through the entire process. And as it grew The System became about the community; not only did you go to Tony and his coaching buddies for guidance, but you went to other clients of the Tony Franklin System, other high school coaches going through exactly what you were going through.

Like almost everything about the Air Raid, it was and remains beautiful and simultaneously extremely weird: Tony Franklin had to get fired, blackballed, and cast out of the coaching community to arguably do more for the evolution of football at the high school and lower levels than any coach of the last decade. While Mike Leach’s teams throwing for 500 or 600 yards on Saturdays was a great commercial for the Air Raid, it was Franklin that actually brought it to the people — though not without charging a fee for his valuable services.

And while at the beginning of their relationship it was Probst who had the privileged position and it was Franklin who was desperate, life takes many turns. Probst was run out of Hoover after his own set of scandals, while Franklin — after a severe hiccup as the short-lived offensive coordinator at Auburn — is now again part of the establishment, both in terms of all coaches and in Air Raid specific ones, as offensive coordinator at Louisiana Tech under former Mike Leach assistant Sonny Dykes. I’m not sure what the lesson of Franklin’s career has been, other than, if nothing else, never underestimate The System.

Dana Holgorsen: New Wave Deconstruction

Many of Mike Leach’s assistants at Texas Tech have gone on to prominent gigs as offensive coordinators and head coaches. But none are more interesting — schematically and otherwise — than Dana Holgorsen. On the one hand, Holgorsen’s offense is in many ways bread-and-butter Air Raid, and is based on many of the same key principles as offenses orchestrated by Mumme, Leach, and each of Tony Franklin’s clients: repetitions, repetitions, and more repetitions, a cohesive approach to practice management and installing an offense, and, yes, most of those key Air Raid passing concepts. Moreover, many of those other Leach disciples who have gone on to other jobs where they, and not Leach, called the plays have made changes to the offense, primarily to either make the offense even more spread out with more no-back and other sets or to diversify the run game and add some play-action.

On the other hand, however, Holgorsen’s attack is at once the same but different, and I can only describe as a Derridean deconstruction of the Air Raid, rebuilt and repackaged — and packaged some more — into something that is both familiar and very different. Many of the key Air Raid plays are there for Dana — Y-Cross, Y-Corner, Y-Stick, All-Curl (Holgorsen has actually combined 96 All-Curl and 93 H-Wheel into the same play) – but others, like Mesh, are not. The reason? They were too different, and simply didn’t fit, and were too expensive to practice. Simple as that. In its place have come all manner of subtle variations on the Air Raid staples; variations that have had unexpected benefits. But first let’s place this innovation within the larger setting. As he explains in the clip below, it’s all grounded in the same things Holgorsen learned from Hal Mumme as a player at Iowa Wesleyan, though it’s only natural — natural for him, at least — to put one’s own spin on the offense.

Just like Leach and Mumme, Holgorsen installs his offense in three days and then repeats that process throughout camp. And his time as Leach’s eye-in-the-sky as Texas Tech’s offensive coordinator well prepared them. But he hasn’t hesitated to change things to fit his personnel, sometimes drastically. And it’s this creative reassembly of the various Air Raid parts into a coherent whole that has distinguished Holgorsen’s attack from other Air Raid spin-offs. The most obvious version of this are the “packaged plays,” where two seemingly unrelated plays are put together, such as Y-Stick combined with the offensive line blocking a draw play.

stick-draw

Once explained and as shown in the clips below, the wisdom of such a concept makes perfect sense (also, offensive linemen are allowed to get three yards downfield on pass plays; it’s not illegal). Specifically, it’s a run play, but, just like bubble screens or some particular blocking schemes, the stick route controls the linebacker to take him out of the run play. And once one has gone down that route, it’s a small leap to begin thinking about combining all sorts of concepts, including quick passes and other runs, screens and runs, screens and quick passes, and so on. Once your mind has gotten beyond the typical heuristics that tell us how football is supposed to work, almost everything is on the table.

Michael Lewis famously said that Leach’s offense was not just an offense; it was a mood: optimism. That’s true, but also incomplete. The Air Raid is the ultimate optimist’s offense, but the offense is also something else. It’s a command to all of its practitioners to do one specific thing, at least when it comes to football. The command is not unique to football, but it is rare within it, and that command is to think different.

There are a lot of cool things to learn from Holgorsen’s offense, and I’ve previously described many of them. But for now let’s just focus on the larger trend, and that is this idea of deconstructing football. What’s amazing about Holgorsen’s offense is it is based on what is undoubtedly one of the greatest passing systems every designed, but, by need and by desire, he’s had to get away from Mumme’s original idea, which was to drop back and throw it as many times as possible. The primary reason is that such a tactic is no longer thinking different: in 1989 it was; in 1997 and 1998, in the SEC, it was; in the Big 12 in 1999, or 2003, or even in 2008, when carried to the extremes Leach took it, it was. But in 2012 it’s not clear that it is different. Holgorsen may or may not be successful as a head coach; I wouldn’t be shocked if within a couple of years some other hot shot Air Raider doesn’t step up and take the mantle of “brightest young mind” in that lineage away from him. Kliff Kingsbury, former Texas Tech quarterback and assistant under Holgorsen, may earn the title if his teams have success at Texas A&M.

But for now, chew on this: In the Orange Bowl, where Holgorsen’s West Virginia squad bombarded Clemson for 70 points with a variety of interesting tactics, and where his quarterback racked up over 400 yards passing and six touchdown passes, how many true, Air Raid-style dropback passes did they throw? And be careful, when you make your evaluation, because you must study the offensive line on each play. On many of those downfield passes, the linemen did not pass block at all, but instead faked a screen or a run-play for play-action, or some other diversion. Holgorsen was not comfortable with his offensive line’s play all year, so he increasingly found ways to throw the ball and get players on the perimeter and in space, while barely pass blocking at all. Study the game for yourself:

This is football deconstruction. It’s taking the building blocks of the Air Raid, of football itself, and placing them in slight variations we haven’t seen before. There’s no rule that football has to look a certain way. In this game, the chess pieces can always do the unexpected.

The Future

I never knew about any of these guys before the 1997 football season at Kentucky. Portentously, in the first quarter of the first game that season against Louisville, Kentucky scored three touchdowns — all passes. I can’t say that I knew, roughly fifteen years ago, that this offense would have such a dramatic effect on football itself and would remain so vital today. But what makes it so interesting — and so vital — is that, unlike the great Tee-formation offenses, the Wing-T, the Wishbone or even the Run-and-Shoot, is that the Air Raid has actually grown beyond the original formations and plays that defined it early on. In that game against Louisville I watched the classical version of the Air Raid in full bloom: two-back sets and the basic plays, called by its inventor, Mumme, and in the first game no-less, the product of the offense having been installed in three days back in the spring and fall of 1997. Leach stretched the classical idea as far as it could go with more receivers, more passing, and even more fluidity, while Franklin took the product to the legions of high school coaches who wanted to try it for themselves, and each had their contributions to make. And now the latest generation, led by Holgorsen but by no means limited to him, have begun the fascinating work of stripping the offense to its core — just a few plays, a method of practicing, and, above all else, the mood and command that underlie the entire thing — and rebuilding it back up for a modern game. The development of all ideas in football works just like this, but rarely is the process so naked and apparent for careful study.

Maybe the most shocking thing about the Air Raid is that we now have three generations of Air Raid coaches, all still coaching today: Mumme is at McMurry and Leach is now at Washington State, while Dykes, Franklin, Hatcher, and Holgorsen, each former assistants for Mumme, Leach, or both, now have their own programs and offenses to coordinate and their own wrinkles to introduce. We’re even looking at what might be fourth generation Air Raid coaches, as Kliff Kingsbury at Texas A&M, Neal Brown at Texas Tech, and many, many others who maybe played for Mumme or Leach or learned the system from coaches like Franklin and Holgorsen, are now developing their own attacks. No one can stay ahead of the game forever, but these guys — and this off-beat, backyard offense — have been doing it for an awful long time, scoring an awful lot of points, and winning an awful lot of games. And that may be the weirdest thing of all.

Air Raid Appendix:

** Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Tony Franklin was fired at Kentucky. He resigned.

BYU Appendix:

Below are the major Airraid/BYU concepts combined with Norm Chow’s reads for each. Note that this more closely hews to the original BYU version than the Airraid version, which has slight differences. If you can’t figure out the differences after reading all of the above, then heaven help you. (Thanks to Bruce Eien for some of the diagrams.)

61 Y OPTION

5 step drop. Eye Y and throw it to him unless taken away from the outside by S/S (then hit Z), OR inside by ILB (then hit FB). Don’t throw option route vs. man until receiver makes eye contact with you. Vs. zone – can put it in seam. Vs. zone – no hitch step. Vs. man – MAY need hitch step.

62 MESH

5 step drop. Take a peek at F/S – if he’s up hit Z on post. Otherwise watch X-Y mesh occur – somebody will pop open – let him have ball. Vs. zone – throw to Fullback.

63 DIG

5 step drop and hitch (7 steps permissible). Read F/S: X = #1; Z = #2; Y OR HB = #3.

64 OUT

5 step drop. Key best located Safety on 1st step. Vs. 3 deep look at F/S – if he goes weak – go strong (Z = #1 to FB = #2 off S/S); if he goes straight back or strong – go weak (X = #1 to HB = #2 off Will LB). Vs. 5 under man – Y is your only choice. Vs. 5 under zone – X & Z will fade.

65 FLOOD (“Y-Sail”)

5 step drop and hitch. Read the S/S. Peek at Z #1; Y = #2; FB = #3. As you eyeball #2 & see color (F/S flash to Y) go to post to X. Vs. 2 deep zone go to Z = #1 to Y = #2 off S/S.

66 ALL CURL

5 step drop and hitch. On your first step read Mike LB (MLB or first LB inside Will in 3-4). If Mike goes straight back or strong – go weak (X = #1; HB = #2). If Mike goes weak – go strong (Y = #1; Z = #2; FB = #3). This is an inside-out progression. NOT GOOD vs. 2 deep 5 under.

67 CORNER/POST/CORNER (“Shakes”)

5 step drop and hitch. Read receiver (WR) rather than defender (Corner). Vs. 2 deep go from Y = #1 to Z = #2. Vs. 3 deep read same as “64” pass (Will LB) for X = #1 or HB = #2. Equally good vs Cover 2 regardless if man OR zone under.

68 SMASH

5 step drop and hitch. Vs. 2 deep look HB = #1; FB = #2 (shoot); Z = #3. Vs. 3 deep – stretch long to short to either side. Vs. man – go to WR’s on “returns”.

69 Y-CROSS/H-Option

5 step drop – hitch up only if you need to. Eye HB: HB = #1; Y = #2. QB & receiver MUST make eye contact vs. man. Vs. zone – receiver finds seam (takes it a little wider vs. 5 under). Only time you go to Y is if Will LB and Mike LB squeeze HB. If Will comes & F/S moves over on HB – HB is “HOT” and will turn flat quick and run away from F/S. Otherwise HB runs at his man to reinforce his position before making his break.

Here is an article from LaVell Edwards describing the concept.

Washington State’s Spring Game: The Return of the Pirate

Spring games typically don’t make for very compelling watching, but anytime you have a new coaching staff, the interest is heightened somewhat because it’s the first and often only glimpse at how the new staff’s schemes will mesh with the existing talent. And of course I’ve been looking forward to the return of Mike Leach to the sideline, and to see how his offense may have evolved in his couple of years away from the game.

As expected, one answer is simple: Not much, nor should it be much different. The offense got lots of mileage early out of four verticals and the mesh concept, for example. But there’s some somewhat new stuff here, primarily in the use of pistol sets from the backs, some multiple runningback sets and motion with those guys in the backfield, and even some play-action and “pop” passes. Much of it is familiar to offenses run by other Airraid graduates, but is somewhat new to Coach Leach’s more traditional attack. I expect Washington State to have a few struggles in the fall, but it should be fun to see how quickly the offense comes together and what new wrinkles Leach adds in.

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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.

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Mike Leach is the new coach at Washington State: Rejoice and be glad

Raise your jolly rogers: Mike Leach is back. After two years of book-touring, suing ESPN, hosting talk-radio, and chillin’ in Key West, Leach is set to coach again in 2012, this time as head pirate in charge of the Washington State Cougars. History, connections, anecdote, and theories regarding the hire abound, but first thing first: It’s a great hire.

Back to business

I love Mike and I obviously can’t wait to see his offense back in action, but I was skeptical of the “fit” between Mike and some of the other schools whose name he was connected to. Big Ten schools tend to either like their coaches a certain way — a way not typical for Leach — or probably couldn’t afford him; SEC schools could afford him but the culture shock on both sides would be larger than I think people realized; and while Leach said he’d basically take any job, I don’t think he sat out for two years to coach a non-BCS conference school. Washington State, on the other hand, is, in my mind, perfect. It’s not perfect in the sense that the team has been struggling in recent years, but they’ve had winners there, and if Leach can get them to a bowl game in the next couple of years the perception will be that he’s been successful. Contrast this with, say, Ole Miss, where a bad game in week five and a couple of questionable calls (and trust me, there would be many calls that diehard SEC fans would not understand) and the pressure would be of an entirely different order.

Indeed, at Washington State Leach can essentially say he’s getting back to the tradition of guns blazing offense and great quarterbacking that defined the Cougars in the modern era. In 1987, Dennis Erickson brought his one-back offense to Pullman and engineered a big turnaround in his second season when they went 9-3, including an upset of then #1 ranked (and Troy Aikman led) UCLA. Erickson left for Miami the following season and was replaced by Mike Price, an Erickson one-back protégé (and actually a high school teammate of Erickson’s). Price led the Cougars to several successful seasons, most notably in 1992 when the team was quarterbacked by Drew Bledsoe and later two Rose Bowl seasons, 1997 when led by Ryan Leaf and 2002 when led by Jason Gesser. The 2002 squad shared the Pac-10 title with Pete Carroll’s Carson Palmer led Southern Cal team, and went to the Rose Bowl ahead of USC due to their head-to-head tiebreaker.

Although I don’t expect Leach to junk his Airraid for Erickson’s one-back offense, this history is important, at least to Leach. In his book Leach mentions that, had he not joined up with Hal Mumme and began running their twist on the BYU passing game, he would have run Dennis Erickson’s one-back three-step game, which was in fact what he’d been doing before he and Mumme got together. Further, after Mumme and Leach’s first season at Kentucky in 1997, they visited Mike Price and his staff at Washington State after their Rose Bowl season. There they picked up some information on formations and receiver screens. It may be irrelevant, but Mumme’s Airraid had always been a two-back offense, while in 1997 Washington State ran a ton of four-wides with one back. That personnel group and formation would later dominant Leach’s offense when he began running his own show.

But all this is important because it is possible to win at Washington State; from 2001 to 2003, the Cougars had three straight ten win seasons. It may be that the Pac-10/12 is much better top to bottom than it was then, but this is not as big of a rebuilding job as, say, Kentucky was when Mumme and Leach went there.

Building a staff. The most important job for Mike right now is to quickly and effectively put together a staff. Fans may expect Leach to arrive in Pullman and by sheer force of history and personality begin to tear up Pac-12 defenses, but the quality of assistants is extremely important. Historically, the assistants Leach has been around, both when he was an assistant himself and later as a head coach, have gone on to continued or increased success elsewhere as four or five have become D-1 head coaches and a number of others have gone on to become offensive coordinators. Further, Mike is a strange guy: he talks too long in meetings, can ramble when recruiting, was never known as a die-hard recruiter, and is very focused on certain things — his offense and his quarterbacks — and really needs others to take the lead in other matters.

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Playcalling doesn’t have to be difficult

Okay, so here’s a story for you. Kilff Kingsbury was our starter, and he was sort of conservative, you know? B.J. (Symons) knew what I wanted to audible to before I even said it, but Kilff was just careful like that. It was third and long against someone, and their corner was cheating way up. Kind of a cheat back, and then at the last second he’d pop up.”

“Well, we had good technique, and were pretty good getting off the line, so I called “Six,” or our call for four verticals. We had it, and I called it, and Kliff shook me off. Now most of the time I’m fine with quarterbacks shaking me off, but we had this, and I got mad and called time out and said some things to Kliff.”

He spits in the ocean, and continues.

“So Kliff goes out there, and I call “Six” again, and he shakes me off again, and now we get delay of game. It’s fourth down, and we’re on our own forty, but I just call it again and have some words with Kliff. We hit it against that corner cheating up for a touchdown, and Kliff comes up and starts yelling at me angry on the sideline: ‘FINE, FINE, ARE YOU HAPPY NOW? WE DID IT YOUR WAY, AND NOW ARE YOU HAPPY?’ And I was.”

That’s from Spencer Hall’s day on the boat with Mike Leach, who is bordering on overexposed right now. That said, the above anecdote is great, and does more (for me) to illuminate why he’s worth studying than all of the Adam James stuff. I have read his new book and do recommend it, and I plan to have more to say about it in the near future.

Thoughts on the spread and run and shoot offenses — Hemlock’s comment

[This is part of an ongoing back and forth between me and a friend of mine who goes by "Hemlock." He was a D-1 coach at a Big 12 school (among other places) and now is pursuing a PhD in non-football related matters. He's a spread offense/run & shoot guru, and has a lot of great thoughts on these offenses, their role and future in football. Below is his comment; I will have a response out soon.]

I broke into coaching when I was still in high school. As a player, I had long read the writing on the wall and knew that playing on Saturdays and Sundays was not in my future. This was not painful for me since I knew all along that what I really loved about the game was its technical side. As it so happened, one day early in the summer I read an article in the local paper that a rival HS had hired a new football coach. This coach was no ordinary, run-of-the-mill gym-teacher-will-you-also-coach-football guy, but instead one whose primary focus was on coaching: he was there to coach football first, not teach during the day and collect a check. What also made him unique was his commitment to the real run and shoot offense, not what Tiger Ellison and Red Faught had their success with — a modified wing-t type offense — but the real thing run by Mouse Davis with the Detroit Lions and John Jenkins at the University of Houston. On a lark, I called the school and asked to meet with the coach.

He agreed to take me under his wing as a sort of high-school version of a graduate assistant. Much like a college graduate assistant [Ed. Note: Most colleges take a graduate student as a grunt-level assistant, which is still the best way to break into coaching at the college level; not many guys start as a full-on assistant coach], in this capacity I pretty much did what nobody else wanted to do. The trade off for me, however, was that I was exposed to the real ‘shoot — the real deal. Not only did I learn the schemes and the playbook, I learned the entire run and shoot culture, the deep grammar undergirding the offense. And, as an added bonus, I was learning it from the very people running it in college and (then) in the NFL.

I learned the offense, but I also became familiar with the familiar reservations coaches had about it. Indeed, in staff meetings someone usually stated that we could run our same four-wide schemes but with a tight-end or even with two running backs in the backfield. After all, wasn’t the “K-Gun” that the Buffalo Bills ran back in those days the run and shoot with tight-end? Didn’t they also run the choice route?

Then as now, coaches gave a whole litany of reasons explaining their desire to change the true, four-wide receiver run and shoot offense into one with another tight-end or another runningback — to unspread the spread. More often than not, these guys would say that the run and shoot would be better if you could just “run the ball downhill with more authority”. Even then I always found these arguments flawed. As a budding scholar today, one of the principles I live by is the belief that you craft your questions around the issue before you. That is, you understand the premises and foundations of the project or topic you are researching and do not ask questions that seek answers to “Y” if the topic is “X.” It’s all about establishing and understanding the terms of the debate. People who say, gee, the run and shoot is great except you can’t run the ball enough — or say the same thing about the Mike Leach/Hal Mumme Airraid offense — do not understand the whole point of the offense, the questions it seeks to answer, and the method it uses to pursue those answers. Let’s look at a few of the major questions.

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Banking 101 with Mike Leach

That’s just how the deal is.

H/t Double-T Nation.