By Mike Kuchar, Senior Research Manager, X&O Labs
On the heels of releasing our special report on Sam Houston State University’s evolution on the Air Raid offensive system, we went directly to the source in a first person interview with the grandfather of the system itself, Washington State University head coach Mike Leach.
By Mike Kuchar
Senior Research Manager
Last month, we released our special report on Sam Houston State University’s evolution on the Air Raid offensive system. In order to increase productivity, the Bearkats offensive coordinator Phil Longo places more of an emphasis on wide receiver play, rather than quarterback play, and the numbers spoke for themselves. Sam Houston State finished first in total offense at the FCS level, stockpiling over 531 yard per game.
We were curious to see if this shift was becoming a trend among Air Raid enthusiasts, so we went directly to the source in a first person interview with the grandfather of the system itself, Washington State University head coach Mike Leach.
MK (Kuchar): What is your perspective on Sam Houston State’s version of the Air Raid offense?
ML (Leach): “I’ve had a lot of admiration for what Coach Longo has done with the system. Sam Houston was a solid program for awhile then they exploded and Coach Longo is a huge part of that.”
MK: At Sam Houston State, responsibility is placed more on the receivers than the quarterback to identify coverages and make adjustments. How is that different to what you do in your system?
ML: “That’s very different than what we do. Our quarterback is equipped to call the offense post-snap and it takes constant training to put them in a position to do it. When Coach Longo put less on his quarterback what he did was give him an ‘if/then’ thought process pre-snap where there is an initial concept side and a backside that would complement it if the front side didn’t cooperate. I thought that was excellent.”
MK: Yes, much of our study relied upon accessing pre-snap space where it is given defensively. How does that limit what defenses can do to defend?
ML: “I’ve noticed that in order to run the ball effectively with the running back, you need to empty the box out to put the defense in a position where they are short handed [Sam Houston State finished 9th in the FCS in rushing last season, a rare accomplishment for an Air Raid system]. It shows no matter what defenses did, they were shorthanded. Even when the defense adjusts, he’s a step or two ahead.”
MK: An essential fundamental of wide receiver play in Coach Longo’s system is to teach receivers to read the hips of defenders to access open areas in zone coverages. Is that something you spend a good deal of time working on?
ML: “We don’t talk much about hips, we talk more about leverage. But it’s a constant quest for finding space. The quick answer is if it’s man, you run and if it’s zone you, sit without breaking the integrity of the route. But I think Phil takes it one step further with the reading of the hips.”
MK: At Sam Houston State, the quarterback is taught to front out, not back out of his drop. How can this be advantageous for this system?
ML: “When he finishes his drop, he doesn’t want to be facing one side. By having the hip open, he can see the entire field. It also helps that the front foot is about a 45-degree angle to the left so he can see the other side too, regardless of which side he starts on. Phil talks about reloading his feet which is a nice subtle adjustment to dictate where he is going to go with the ball.”
MK: We reported on the aspect of the quarterback throwing to space by reading receivers and not defenders. How does that help speed up the decision making process of the quarterback?
ML: “I think a lot of places will try to do both, both read receivers and defenders, but I’ve always thought when it comes to throwing the ball you could only read one of them. We read routes. We have a progression tied to the quarterback. Some routes are dismissed pre-snap. It starts based on leverage pre-snap and it progresses from there. If you’re reading defenders you’re looking to make the defender wrong, but in our case it’s a quicker result. The quarterbacks’ thought process is, ‘Is this route covered? Yes. Is this route covered? Yes. Ok, well then this route must not be. Throw it.’ One thing I like better about this is that if a team plays cover two there are ton of versions of it. They could sit flat with the corners or they can pattern read it. They can have the safeties fly out of there. There are robber schemes. If that’s not bad enough, than there is a pilot error element where the route is there but it shouldn’t be. A defender could not be where he’s supposed to be or he can trip, whatever. Reading routes accounts for all those errors because it happens in real time. It’s as simple as is he open or is he not regardless of what you think the coverage is going to be. If you’re executing well, we work to find the receiver that is single covered. It really doesn’t matter how he is open, what’s most important in a three second window is that he’s open.”
MK: Which Air Raid concept of yours do you feel Coach Longo did an admirable job evolving schematically?
ML: “He’s become really aggressive in his shallow concept. He’s tagging a number of different routes to it. Ours is basic compared to his. I think his shallow scheme has more dimension than ours does. He references strike points on the dig, which we don’t use. He’s also more specific in teaching the dig to be run off the alley defender, not the safety, if the alley defender lifts. He also does some great jobs with comebacks as outside routes on the shallow. I think it’s really good for what he’s doing.”
MK: In your opinion, what do you feel coaches like Phil Longo are doing to continually evolve this system? How have they kept it so current?
ML: “You’re trying to attack the field sideline-to-sideline and approximately 30 yards down field. That’s the manageable framework we use. It’s what you do in that box that makes it work.”
Sam Houston State's
Air Raid Evolution
How One Air Raid Program Has Geared Its
Emphasis on WR Play, Not QB Play, to
Achieve Astronomical Numbers
"Our receivers get a lot of freedom here and they are always right. We have incompletes because of bad throws, poor QB decisions or because of pressure. It's usually not because we are covered. The route progression is usually there."
-Phil Longo, Offensive Coordinator, Sam Houston State University (TX)
On the surface, the system being run in Huntsville, Texas may seem inherently ingrained in the Air Raid prototype developed decades ago by legendary coaches Mike Leach and Hal Mumme. Like many Air Raid systems, the Bearkats pride themselves on an up tempo offense. They ran 1,275 plays last season (85 per game), which were among the highest in the country. The results of this output were staggering:
- 1st in the FCS in total offense, averaging 531.7 yards per game.
- 7,975 yards of total offense, 3rd highest in Division 1 history.
- 1st in the FCS in first downs with 414, an all-time Southland Conference record.
- 27.6 first downs per game, an all-time Southland Conference record.
- 5th in the FCS in scoring offense, averaging 41.1 points per game.
- 9th in the FCS in rushing offense, averaging 254.5 yard per game
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo's approach to the passing game is entirely "Air Raid" by nature. He trains his quarterbacks to get the ball out of their hands quickly, teaches his receivers to chase space in zone coverages and run what he calls "cheaper," less structured, universal routes that are efficient against both zone and man coverages. Coach Longo will be the first to tell you his system is a disciple of the Air Raid. In fact, he's clinic'ed with Dana Holgorsen at West Virginia and Kliff Kingsbury at Texas Tech and takes a yearly spring visit to see Coach Leach in Pullman. In fact, they even recruit the same quarterbacks (Sam Houston signed a Washington State de-commit just this winter).
But the differences lay in one vital component, the alleviation of responsibility of the quarterback. While some "system" quarterbacks are grounded in the Air Raid, Coach Longo and his offensive staff doesn't ask the quarterback to handle a heavy workload such as identifying the Mike linebacker, reading coverage structures, checking protection or even communicating with the offensive line. In his words, this system is "quarterback friendly." "He is simply a distributor to our talent base. We don't want them (QBs) doing anything but completing balls," he told us. Which means the receivers, not the quarterbacks, are asked to identify coverage and make the proper adjustments against man and zone coverages. In this system, the quarterback doesn't read defenders; he instead looks for open receivers. Routes are built to win against any coverage. It's an alternative mindset that has come with its advantages. In Coach Longo's two-year tenure in Huntsville, the Bearkats have finished in the FCS Final Four two years in a row and have produced the Southland Conference Offensive Player of the Year in a two-quarterback system.
The premise of the offense is centered on two-receiver components, chasing space in zone coverages and gaining separation in man coverages. The malleability of the scheme provides an answer to any defensive adjustment. "Most people will say that offensive coordinators are not patient enough to throw 30 hitches a game, so defenses will start to play the deep ball and allow us to take those underneath routes," Coach Longo says. "With me that's not the case. I don't care how boring it is. If that's what you are going to give us than that's what I'm going to take." Often times, this access even comes in the form of an unloaded box in which Coach Longo takes advantage of by running the ball. The Bearkats were among the best in the nation in that category as well, which is philosophically anti-Air Raid. "They (defenses) are making us a better run team because they are defending the pass game all day. All we are doing is telling our players that they need to chase that space. We need to take advantage of the space. That is where the passing offense comes from."
Even Sam Houston State head coach KC Keeler credits the success of the offense to the offensive premise of taking what the defense gives you. "If you're going to play loose and cover our guys outside, we will run the ball all day on you," he told us. "We don't need to throw the football. Conversely, if you're going to cheat the box and take away our run game then we will hurt you all sorts of ways with our athletes. It's about getting our athletes in space. Coach Longo does a great job of creating space."
A Brand-New Special Report:
Sam Houston State's
Air Raid Evolution
We spent three days this spring studying the responsibility that Sam Houston State places on its receivers and quarterbacks. We were in the meeting rooms and had unfiltered access to the coaching staff. We present our research in this brand-new special report that is segmented into the following three cases:
Case 1: System Analysis and Role of Receivers
In this case, we provide a brief background of the Sam Houston State system, how it terms formations, personnel groupings and how it organizes its tempo verbiage. All of the components that make the system run quickly. Much of the onus of this productivity is placed on its receiving corps, in which a half a dozen players are rotated through on a weekly basis. Some of the research in this case includes:
- What receivers are expected to understand based on the pre-snap leverage of the defensive secondary.
- The pre-snap thought process that receivers are expected to undertake that distinguishes between man and zone coverages.
- How "space" is defined in zone coverage and the five fundamentals that Coach Longo and his offensive staff use to teach their receivers to access space in zone coverages.
- An analysis and drill film of the press push stem technique that allows receivers, not defenders, to dictate leverage by accessing any route concept.
- Why Sam Houston State teaches its receivers to count break foot steps in route running, rather than using landmarks.
- How using double pounds, instead of using chopping down on break points, provides for a more smoother route transition.
- An analysis and drill film of the look away technique that receiver use to gain separation from defenders at the break point of routes.
- How the 9 most efficient routes in Sam Houston State's route tree, fade, post curl, dig, snag, inside search, outside search, pivot, speed out and hook, are drilled against both man and zone coverage technique.
- How receivers are taught to gain separation against man coverage by using the pin and break, look lean and drive and backdoor technique.
- An analysis and drill film of the pin and break technique used by receivers to gain separation against press coverage at the line of scrimmage.
- An analysis and drill film of the look, lean and drive technique used by receivers to gain separation from defenders during the route stem.
- An analysis and drill film of the backdoor technique used by receivers to gain separation from defenders at the break point of the route.
Case 2: The Role of the Quarterback
In this case, we researched the responsibility that the quarterback has in running the system, particularly how he is trained to make the correct read on routes both pre and post snap. We also researched how he's taught to get the ball out quickly and efficiently. The Bearkats surrendered a meager 1.4 sacks per game last season. We found that the efficiency lies in his pre-snap understanding of free access space and how Coach Longo correlates the drop of the quarterback to the route progressions in the play concept. Some of the research in this case includes:
- The only two coverage types the quarterback is expected to diagnose pre-snap.
- Why quarterback progressions are referred to as looks, not reads.
- How quarterbacks are trained to read receivers and not defenders in their route progression.
- The benefits of having the quarterback back out, and not front out, of his drop by keeping his shoulders squared.
- An analysis and drill film of the facemask look off technique, which prevents defenders from triggering on routes.
- An analysis and drill film of the three drops quarterbacks are expected to know in this system and how they are tweaked against man or zone coverages.
- How play action drops are easily integrated into the three drop categories of the quarterback.
- Why Coach Longo teaches strike points for each route, which is the landmark where the quarterback should be connecting with receivers in his progression.
- The four categories of throws that quarterbacks are expected to throw in this system and the routes that correspond with each.
- An analysis and drill film of the Ghost Drill, which teaches quarterbacks to visual the proper footwork and strike points on each route concept of the Air Raid offense.
- An analysis and drill film of the Reload Drill, which teaches quarterbacks the proper footwork to use in sifting through their read progressions in the Air Raid offense.
Case 3: Route and Route Concepts That Attack Space
In this case, we delve into the specifics of the pass game at Sam Houston State University, which is centered on quick game concepts with even quicker release points by the quarterback. We focused our research on the six universal Air Raid route concepts and how the Bearkats are teaching the concepts as it pertains to finding space in zone coverages and gaining separation in man coverages. Some of the research in this case includes:
- An analysis and film breakdown of how pre and post-snap space is accessed in the Bubble/X Screen concept, which is a quick game tag off the Bearkats run game.
- An analysis and film breakdown of how pre and post-snap space is accessed in the Fade/Out concept, which is a quick game tag off the Bearkats run game.
- An analysis and film breakdown of how pre and post-snap space is accessed in the Slant/Bubble concept, which is a quick game tag off the Bearkats run game.
- An analysis and film breakdown of how pre and post-snap space is accessed in the Double Slant concept, which is a quick game tag off the Bearkats run game.
- An analysis and film breakdown of how pre and post-snap space is accessed in the Triangle Concept, which is a staple in the Air Raid system.
- An analysis and film breakdown of how pre and post-snap space is accessed in the Shallow Concept, which is a staple in the Air Raid system.
- An analysis and film breakdown of how pre and post-snap space is accessed in the Spacing Concept, which is a staple in the Air Raid system.
- An analysis and film breakdown of how pre and post-snap space is accessed in the Mesh Concept, which is a staple in the Air Raid system.
- An analysis and film breakdown of how pre and post-snap space is accessed in the Stick Concept, which is a staple in the Air Raid system.
- An analysis and film breakdown of how pre and post-snap space is accessed in the Flood Concept, which is a staple in the Air Raid system.
Bonus: 2 Hours of Game and Practice Film!
This brand-new special report includes two hours of game and practice film. You will read a concept or drill and then immediately watch the corresponding game or practice film.
This special report is available right now in our exclusive membership website, Insiders.
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