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Sports >  WSU football

Since Mike Leach’s arrival on the Palouse, Washington State has gone “all in” on the Air Raid offense

By Dan Thompson For The Spokesman Review

Connor Halliday was there at the beginning.

He was there in 2011, when Mike Leach arrived in Pullman with an offensive philosophy but not much of a playbook.

It was not what he had signed up for out of high school. Halliday was a Paul Wulff recruit, and Washington State was the place the Ferris High School graduate had always wanted to play, even if the Cougars were among the worst Division I programs in the country at the time.

“I wanted to be the guy that changed that,” Halliday said. “So that was my absolute No. 1 goal, and I wasn’t going to let a coaching change deter me.”

So Halliday entertained no thoughts of transferring, but still. This Air Raid thing? Very different.

But he loved it, and he saw the potential, the kind of potential that has led to record-breaking performances – including some from Halliday – one on top of the other.

The kind of potential realized so emphatically last season when Gardner Minshew led the Cougars to 11 wins for the first time in program history.

The kind of potential that it takes a whole lot of time and experience – throwing, catching and reading defenses – to fulfill.

“When they got things rolling at (Texas) Tech and now at Washington State, the older QBs teach the younger guys,” Halliday said. “There’s not a whole lot of install done by the coaches. … (Leach’s) stuff is so straightforward and obviously that’s a positive, but when you’re first learning an offense there’s nobody on the team that knows any more than the next guy.”

At a school that had just nine wins in the previous four years, the Air Raid was a perfect tool for resurrection, because that’s precisely what it had done at Texas Tech in the 2000s, at Division II Valdosta State in the 1990s, and at NAIA Iowa Wesleyan in the late 1980s, the time and place where Hal Mumme first hired Leach and gave the Air Raid its first full-time laboratory.

“If you go all-in on it, then that’s when it really becomes a beautiful thing,” Mumme said.

That’s what Leach has done at Washington State. The program that has produced great quarterbacks for four decades is continuing to do so – but it does so now while sounding the Air Raid horn that is heard in more and more places across the country.

“Well it’s pretty much been effective everywhere. The last several Super Bowls have been played by Air Raid concepts on both sides for the most part,” Leach said. “I think it does a good job of attacking space and utilizing personnel. Whether it’s Air Raid or something else, I think that’s what all good offenses do.”

All because Mumme thought that maybe it might be better to just keep it simple: throw the ball to the open guy – and make sure there’s always at least one guy open.

A philosophy, not just an offense

The first high-profile school to adopt the Air Raid was the University of Kentucky, which hired Mumme in the spring of 1996. The Wildcats had gone 9-24 the previous three seasons, but under Mumme they went 18-17 in the next three and played in two bowl games. Quarterback Tim Couch went on to be the No. 1 pick in the 1999 NFL Draft.

Before the 1999 season, Leach – who had been Mumme’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach – got hired to do the same job for Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. He brought the Air Raid with him.

Steve Spurrier Jr. – now in his second year as Cougars outside receivers coach – was an assistant on that Oklahoma staff and remembers sitting down to talk with Leach and other coaches about this new offense.

“We get to Oklahoma, and Cale Gundy is the running backs coach. He played quarterback at Oklahoma, a Type A, and he wants specific answers, so we start asking questions,” Spurrier said. “First of all we said, ‘Do you have a playbook?’ Yeah, no. ‘Do you have anything written down we can look at?’ Nothing.”

But Leach did have tapes from his time at Kentucky, and sure enough, Spurrier said, every play looks different. And yet a little bit the same.

“Anywhere I’ve ever been and especially everything my father’s offense taught was it was so coverage specific,” Spurrier said, referring to his father, who coached at South Carolina and Florida before that. “What we did as an offense was, if it’s man(-to-man defense), we want man plays. If it’s Cover-3 we want Cover-3 plays. If it’s Cover-2 we want Cover-2 plays. We want to get to the areas of the field to burst that coverage.

“Coach Leach does not like to ever talk about coverage. Ever. He just tells you to get open. Is there somebody chasing you? Well keep running. Do you feel like you’re open? Well stay there.”

It sounds simple, almost like a pick-up game between high school friends. In some ways, it is.

Even before Mumme took the Air Raid to Iowa Wesleyan, he first tried out some of the principles –based then on the run-and-shoot offense – at Copperas Cove High School in Texas in 1986. And part of his pitch to the players – who had grown accustomed to losing a lot of football games – was to make it enjoyable again.

“Football wasn’t fun, so we set about making an offense that was about as much fun as if they decided to play at a park on Sunday afternoon,” Mumme said. “If you can reduce the game to the point where the players are having so much they think of it in that manner, then I think you’ve done your job as an Air Raid.”

One of the fundamental differences between the Air Raid and more traditional systems is that week to week and day to day, it changes very little, if at all. Most offenses are tailored to the specific opponent that week, which means that Mondays are devoted, generally, to installing whatever new plays the coaches have devised specifically for the following Saturday.

But for Leach, Spurrier said, that’s a waste of time.

Instead, they just practice. A lot.

One particular drill the Cougars run in practice lines up four quarterbacks side by side and four receivers, one for each to throw to. On any given rep, every quarterback throws and every receiver catches, and then they rotate. This way the quarterback throws four different types of passes in succession, cycling through them again and again and again.

“One of the things I think is very, very unique about what we do is how we practice. We practice what we do, and we run routes all day long,” Spurrier said. “Everybody’s throwing and catching every down … we’ll do the same thing every single day.”

No matter who they are going to play the next week, they practice the same way. Every time.

When Brandon Arconado came to campus in 2016, he wasn’t handed a playbook. He said coaches just taught them by drawing plays on the board. He thought it was really weird at first.

“In high school, yeah, you have a playbook, you add new plays and would get a new sheet,” Arconado said. “But here, you just learn on the fly. … But once you understand it and you get it locked down, and it becomes second nature, I think it’s unstoppable.”

Reps, reps, reps

Alex Brink held the Cougars’ all-time pass record by the time he played his last down in 2007. He had won three Apple Cups, a feat never matched by another Washington State quarterback. He is now the color commentator on the Cougars radio broadcasts.

Brink never got a chance to play in the Air Raid, but “boy, I would have loved to play in this system,” he said.

“It’s not just the number of throws,” he said. “It’s the style, and from a quarterback’s standpoint it takes away a lot of gray area.”

Among the many aspects Brink likes about the Air Raid is its simplistic nature. There are a few concepts, and there certainly are rules, but as a player, he said, you don’t need to learn 200 plays.

“You literally learn 15, 20, 25 plays max,” he said. “At that point you’re able to rely on athletic ability and reps. You’ve repped it so many times, you’re very efficient.”

Receivers, quarterbacks and linemen are trained to read defenses as they come to the line of scrimmage. Armed with a play, which is more of a suggestion, the quarterback decides whether the play will be successful or not. Or, perhaps more aptly, he decides whether a different play would be more successful.

Any adjustments are communicated mostly through hand signals before the snap of the ball, and away the offense goes. The charge to the receivers is the same, Spurrier said: Get open.

“Again, we do it over and over and over, versus zone, versus man, versus our defense, versus every different look we can get, we do it over and over, same thing,” Spurrier said. “So regardless of what the defense gives us each week, which is two or three different things, we practice that 1,000 times.”

Even once the receivers are out in their route, they have the freedom to stop when they find themselves alone and trust that the quarterback sees the same thing.

“Like, I’ll go as far as to say, we’ll be running a route, and I’ll see the DBs playing a certain way,” said senior receiver Easop Winston Jr.. “I’ll have a route on before, but if he’s playing a certain way, I’ll break the route off or something else. When I come off the line, I’m still trying to gather information, which is kinda fun.”

A long-term commitment

All that is founded on having thousands of reps.

Halliday didn’t have those.

“The thing that was most difficult and frustrating for me was I was coming off the lacerated liver the year before Leach got there, so I didn’t get to practice at all in the spring,” Halliday said of 2012. “I didn’t get to do anything in the spring, let alone practice. I was barely getting out of bed.”

Halliday missed three or four more practices in the fall, and by the time the season opener came around, he said, “I knew the plays, but I didn’t know them like the back of my hand.”

“The biggest thing that was the most frustrating part was the limited amount of reps. You can take as many notes and watch film but you’re gonna learn the most from doing it.”

Halliday wasn’t yet the starter. Jeff Tuel started the opener against BYU, a game Washington State lost 30-6. They didn’t score a touchdown.

Halliday played the next week – a 24-20 victory at home over Eastern Washington – and the two quarterbacks split time the rest of the year. Washington State went just 3-9 that season, but in the Apple Cup it stormed back with 18 fourth-quarter points to tie Washington, and the Cougars completed the comeback in overtime, 31-28. It remains the only Apple Cup victory in Leach’s seven tries as head coach.

It also illustrated that, for its steep learning curve and its penchant for quick three-and-outs, the Air Raid sure could score rapidly.

The next season showed more promise for the Cougars. They went 6-7 and reached the New Mexico Bowl, which featured an 18-point surge by Colorado State in the game’s final 3 minutes, enough to hand the Cougars a 48-45 defeat.

Halliday threw 714 passes that year, five attempts shy of the NCAA record, held by B.J. Symons – Texas Tech’s quarterback in 2003 under Leach. Halliday threw for 34 touchdowns and 4,597 yards, a single-season record that stood for five years, until Minshew surpassed it (4,779). Halliday also set a single-game NCAA record that year with 734 passing yards in a 60-59 loss to Cal.

In the WSU record books, Halliday has four of the top five single-game passing totals. His 11,308 passing yards are second only to Luke Falk’s 14,481 in program history.

Yet during Halliday’s three years as a starter, WSU went 12-25. Progress that was over the Paul Wulff era (2008-11), when the Cougars went 9-40, but seemingly it would have been grounds to get a coach fired. But not Leach.

“This wasn’t going to be a quick fix,” Bill Moos, then the WSU athletic director, told The Spokesman-Review after the 2014 season. “It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get more wins this year, but we’re going to learn from it, flush it, and go forward. The answer isn’t making changes every three or four years. When you feel you’ve got a good coach and the pieces are there, the facilities are there, we’ve got to do everything we can to establish stability and consistency here.”

And sure enough, the Cougars really got going after that, and the offense got increasingly more complex, more wrinkled.

In the 2015 season opener, Halliday saw it right away. For years he had lobbied to run some plays out of an empty set – with no player in the backfield. Three plays into that opener, sure enough, Halliday said, the Cougars came out in empty.

Brink sees it now, too, in minor but effective tweaks. Take Double Smash, a play where normally the running back sits down where the middle linebacker would be. What Washington State has now done with it, Brink said, is to send the running back on a go route down the middle of the field.

If the running back is fast – and Max Borghi is fast – he may end up in an advantageous one-on-one with a middle linebacker.

“In the traditional book,” Brink said, “that’s not the play. Those things are really effective. People used to say with the Air Raid, you only run 15 plays. What I saw a lot with the offensive staff, what they’ve done is they’ll take a base play and throw in a tweak or a wrinkle.”

But those wrinkles took time for the team to be able to handle.

“It took a couple years because I do think one of the overlooked pieces of the puzzle here is, presnap, the quarterback is asked to do a lot. He’s literally asked to get (receivers) in the right place,” Brink said. “Early on as a quarterback, there’s a little bit of indecisiveness.”

“I think the quarterbacks are now better decision makers just because they get it, it’s taught better, the receivers understand it better, the line understands it better. I think it took probably two or three years to get into what it is now.”

Halliday didn’t have quarterbacks to mentor him within the system the way he mentored Falk and Tyler Hilinski, for example. Minshew may not have been at Washington State then, but he had played in and studied Air Raid systems previously.

“I think where it is now at WSU,” Halliday said, “the old guys know it like the back of their hands, and they teach the young guys and they become old guys, and they teach the young guys and that’s kind of how it goes.”

Anthony Gordon, the starter for the Cougars when they open at home against New Mexico State, said he is still mastering the system.

“I’m getting there,” he said. “Coach Leach is the master of course, but I’ve been here for four years, four years I guess is what it takes to master it, but I dunno. I’m still learning more every day.”

At all of Mumme’s stops along the way, it took a few years for his teams to win consistently, if they ever did at all. Kentucky fired him after four seasons, for example, and the system never took off. But it did at Texas Tech, where Leach won at least nine games in half his 10 seasons, and it has taken off at Washington State.

“No question. It’s a great fit, for Mike and for the school,” Mumme said. “You’re out there watching the master of it right now.”

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