PULLMAN – If there’s a downside to the Air Raid offense promulgated by Washington State University head coach Mike Leach it’s that it’s not the easiest thing to teach, or learn.
Few high schools run such a pass-oriented attack. And because of its unique properties, such as extra-wide splits for offensive lineman and the importance placed on running backs being able to catch the ball, it’s a lot for a college athlete to learn in four or five years.
Imagine, then, the difficulty for a quarterback to master the system in just one fall camp and a few games. Imagine how much more difficult the task must be for a freshman, who is still getting used to taking college classes at an academic powerhouse.
Such is the case for Cal’s Jared Goff, who Leach will get a chance to evaluate up close when his Cougars travel to Berkeley to take on the Golden Bears on Saturday and their Bear Raid variation of his offense.
Goff won the starting job in fall camp and has impressed onlookers with his proficiency in an offense that is so difficult to learn, the knowledge must be imparted by the players – in the offseason, which Goff has yet to experience.
“Once the older kids know it they can transfer it to the younger kids,” Leach says. “Then you put it together in the offseason so you can reinforce everything and work all the techniques.”
Because of the importance of offseason training and the dispersal of wisdom from veteran players to the young, WSU – only in its second season under Leach – is quite a bit further along the learning curve than Cal.
The Golden Bears also rely heavily on a pair of sophomore receivers in Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper, although coach Sonny Dykes says they are not be as wet behind the ears as you might believe.
“I think the receivers are probably a little ahead of the curve in a lot of ways because they were well-coached in high school and they played in offenses in high school where they caught a lot of balls and were productive,” Dykes said.
Against Oregon last week, the issues inherent to relying on such young players in a new, complicated offense surfaced. The Golden Bears had five turnovers, and Goff was benched after just six passes due to an inability to hold onto the football in the rain. Cal’s quarterbacks finished 18 of 37.
“Jared’s a very talented young quarterback, and he’s done some things very well, but he’s going to make his share of mistakes that will be chalked up to inexperience,” Dykes said “The good thing is: He’s a bright kid and he’ll learn, and he has learned and improved. We anticipate him being a very productive quarterback in our offense.”
It will be a tall task to show much improvement on Saturday against a Cougars defense that preys on young quarterbacks.
In Nick Marshall’s first game as Auburn’s quarterback he threw for just 99 yards while barely completing half of his passes. USC sophomore Cody Kessler fared no better, gaining just 54 yards through the air and throwing a back-breaking interception that Damante Horton returned 75 yards for a touchdown.
The Cougars are among the country’s leaders in takeaways, generating nine turnovers including seven interceptions. But even if Goff again struggles, Dykes has faith that his young signal-caller will get it sorted out. He wouldn’t have turned to the teen if he didn’t think he could get the job done this year.
“It’s always difficult anytime you go to a new program and you’re changing things,” Dykes said. “It takes a certain level of time to get everything the way you want it to, and especially with young players. Guys who have played in games before typically adjust a little more quickly than guys who haven’t. It’s a process, anytime you go someplace. It’s a process and it doesn’t look very good early.
“Sometimes you walk into a situation where you catch lighting in a bottle you might have a really special player here or a really solid core coming back but it’s usually a process anytime you’re trying to build something.”