Tracing the History and Evolution of College Football’s Air Raid Offense

Air Raid Offense

Out of the ashes of the vaunted Brigham Young offense of the 1970’s, 1980’s, and early 1990’s that led to a glut of QB numbers for players such as Jim McMahon, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco, and Ty Detmer came the birth of the Air Raid Offense.

The plays are all there that were initially featured in the BYU offense but this time it was twisted and manufactured into a prominent 4 WR look with a lone RB in the backfield. Hal Mumme, now part of the SMU coaching staff with legendary Run & Shooter June Jones, and Mike Leach are considered the unofficial godfathers of the offense. Assistant coaches such as Dana Holgorsen (WVU), Mark Stoops/Neal Brown (Kentucky), Kliff Kingsbury (Texas Tech), and Sonny Dykes/Tony Franklin (California) have landed head coaching jobs in the past few years, for the 2013 College Football season, or in the case of Brown & Franklin, remain as offensive coordinator.

Hal Mumme and Mike Leach initially built good programs at Iowa Wesleyan and Valdosta State but it wasn’t until their arrival at Kentucky in 1997 (and Leach’s run as OC in 1999 at Oklahoma) that the offense started to really take shape. One of the biggest successes for Kentucky was the win over Alabama in 1997 with QB Tim Couch at the helm.

One of the first things astute fans will notice is that a lot of Kentucky’s offense was built more around the base 2 back Pro Style offense that BYU primarily used in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. Back then, Mike Leach was more disciplined with his Pro formations and the rise of the 4 WR spread looks would primarily start to form during his tenure as head coach at Texas Tech.

A lot of the effectiveness of the offense relied on a handful of plays that were executed quickly and let the receivers get yards after catch. In the above video, you can count into near double digits the number of times that the running backs ran simple flair or angle routes and amassed big yardage as a result.

With Oklahoma and QB Josh Heupel, Mike Leach really started to tinker with wider spread 4 WR formations but continued to maintain a handle on the pro formations that helped set up his interior running game including a 2 TE formation that scored Oklahoma’s first touchdown.

Finally at Texas Tech, Leach started really turning on the jets and built Texas Tech into a consistently winning program largely on the foundation of his offense. One of the most memorable games was the comeback bowl victory over Minnesota that helped cement the offense as legit. This helped cultivate a group of assistant coaches that have since imprinted their own stamps on both the offense and their own programs throughout the college football landscape.

The “Core” Group of Plays
Almost every Air Raid offense relies on a base set of maybe 8-10 route concepts with some coaches, such as Dana Holgorsen, preferring certain routes over others to cater to the build of their offense.

I have posted a video from 2003 depicting the entire Texas Tech vs. Texas A&M game so that readers can get a feel for the plays listed out below over the course of a full game as opposed to clipped highlights.

All images are from Kentucky’s 1997 playbook courtesy of Chris Brown.

The Passing Game
01: Mesh
The inside receivers in a 4 WR formation (or a Slot WR/TE or 2 TEs) run about 3-5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, trying to rub their defenders in order to create separation. Depending on the defense, usually the speed allows them to outrace the covering LB who has no chance at keeping up. Slot receivers at Texas Tech such as Wes Welker and later Danny Amendola made a killing against opponents by running this play.

02: Y Cross
Effective off of play-action. The QB can key the FS to throw to the Y receiver crossing deep over the middle of the field or the X receiver running a deep post behind the FS. Depending on the coverage by the Free Safety, the QB can go short or deep. Note the motion below that allows for the X receiver to shift inside to a slot position.

03: Y Sail
This play entails the X receiver going vertical to take his CB, allowing for the slot WR/Y WR to run a flag/sail pattern towards the vacated area at the sidelines. Usually they are matched up with a deep safety and can beat them with speed.

04: Shakes
Primarily used against Cover 2. The X and Z receivers essentially run deep half moon routes towards the sidelines. Depending upon the play of the SS, the QB can get a 1-1 matchup with the Z receiver or he can hit the Y WR down the middle as he splits the safeties.

05: All Curls
Exactly what it says. All receivers run and then curl back towards the QB. As basic a sandlot play as one gets.

06: Double Smash
The outside receivers start up field and cut back for screen possibilities. The slot WRs run up field, step inside, then cut hard in flag routes towards the sidelines.

07: Y Option
The other play that Wes Welker in particular killed teams with and continued to kill teams with at the NFL level. The Z receiver goes vertical and the Y WR runs with the option of digging inside or cutting outside depending on how his particular defender is playing him. Often times, the Y WR would be matched up on a LB or S and Wes’ smarts would kill them nearly every time.

08: Shallow Cross
A play that Mike Shanahan helped develop while with the Denver Broncos and one that WR Ed McCaffrey feasted defenses on. One slot WR runs a shallow cross right behind the line of scrimmage. The opposite receiver runs a deeper pattern digging in across the field. If the MLB bites up, the QB can throw deep and if the MLB drops back, the QB can throw it short.

09: 4 Verticals aka “6” aka Go Deep
The most basic play in football, sandlot or otherwise. All receivers go deep but Leach added a wrinkle in part due to the arm strength of B.J. Symons in 2005 whereupon he could throw to the back shoulder of a receiver, forcing them to turn the play into a deeper curl route/comeback route. Symons would throw for 5,833 yards during the 2003 season.

10: Shoot Series
Another favorite of Leach’s during his days at Kentucky and particularly notable in the game against Alabama. The Shoot series of plays were basically designed for the RBs or slot WRs to “shoot” out towards the sidelines for a quick pass completion. Most refer to these as flare routes or flat routes. The goal is to treat this as a running play that can net a quick 2-5 yards or more if the player has open field.

11: Outside Hitch
A variation on the shoot series and all curls. The outside WRs run up field 3 yards and hitch, turning back towards the QB for the ball. The slot WRs (or RB/Y WR) run up the seams vertically to help take away the safeties and allow for the outside WR a chance at a big play if they break the initial tackle.

12: Screens
Primarily consisted of passes to the slot WRs (letting the outside WRs block), the outside WRs coming in (and letting the slot WRs block), or the more common RB screens in which the OL lets defenders break through so they can block down the field.

Running Game
This is kept very simple, in part due to the overload of 5 defenders in the box in order to stop the passing game that the Air Raid tends to primarily focus upon. With the arrival of coaches like Holgorsen, Franklin, and Kingsbury who have emphasized the run game, this theory has been slightly altered since but remains fairly simple.

The main runs are dives, draws, counters, and traps. The counter is when the RB starts inside but sharply bounces outside, usually going off-tackle. A trap play is when a RB receives the ball and starts in the opposite direction of an OL (usually an OG but can be a TE) who is pulling to block an unblocked defender along the line of scrimmage.

Simplicity’s Sake
In contrast to the West Coast Offense’s dense packages and hard to understand complexity, the Air Raid offense focuses on a simplified grouping of plays that often lead to complete offensive installs in under a week. Largely as a result of a simplified core group of plays and constant repetitions during practice, teams and players are able to consistently install the offense in as little as 3 practices.

“But the plays we run will never change. We have the same number of plays in our package that we’ve had for years, we don’t add stuff. If you add stuff, then you have to take something out, because we believe in compact and condensed packages.” – Shannon Dawson, West Virginia OC

“That wrist held a mere 23 ordinary plays, 9 red-zone plays (for situations inside an opponent’s 20-yard line), 6 goal-line plays, 2 2-point-conversion plays and 5 trick plays.” – Michael Lewis

The small number of plays is designed to be run out of multiple formations, an asset that Leach says limits the complexity for the offense while still making the offense complex to the defense.

“There’s two ways to make it more complex for the defense,” Leach says. “One is to have a whole bunch of different plays, but that’s no good because then the offense experiences as much complexity as the defense. Another is a small number of plays and run it out of lots of different formations.”

A lot of the air raid offense’s simplicity allows for a heavy up-tempo pace that has only been recently surpassed by Chip Kelly’s insane tempo with the University of Oregon, bound to continue under new head coach Mark Helfrich. The short passing routes designed to get the ball out quickly, combined with the very small number of base plays, has allowed for the Air Raid to run at maximum efficiency and often generate near 90 plays a game.

“But speeding everything up has a curious effect on game time. A typical college football team runs 65 to 75 offensive plays a game. Texas Tech tries to run 90 – and sometimes does. A college team with a robust passing game might throw the football 35 times a game; at this point, 8 games into an 11-game regular season, the Red Raiders were averaging 53 passes a game.” – Michael Lewis’ outstanding NY Times Article

To understand how much the pace of the no-huddle has effected football…
2007 Texas Tech: Average of 78 plays per game.
2008 Houston: Average of 78 plays per game.
2008 Texas Tech: Average of 75 plays per game.
2009 Houston: Average of 82 plays per game.
2009 Texas Tech: Average of 76 plays per game.
2010 Oklahoma State: Average of 76 plays per game.
2010 Texas Tech: Average of 81 plays per game.
2011 Texas Tech: Average of 83 plays per game.
2012 Louisiana Tech: Average of 88 plays per game.
2012 Oregon: Average of 81 plays per game.
2012 Texas A&M: Average of 79 plays per game.
2012 West Virginia: Average of 77 plays per game.

As a credit to the up-tempo no huddle approach, there is heavy reliance on the QB to audible in any given situation and offer a better play as Leach points out, “He can see more than I’ll ever see,” Leach says. “If I call a stupid play, his job is to get me out of it. If he doesn’t get me out of it, I might holler at him. But if you let him react to what he sees, there’s a ton of touchdowns to be had.”

The latitude can be so extreme that an article from 2004 by Bob Davie for said, “It is amazing how well Leach prepares the quarterbacks and the authority he gives them during the game. For example, over 90 percent of Tech’s running plays were checked to at the line of scrimmage.” In 2003, that would have meant (taking out QB runs which include sacks at the college level) that of the 228 running plays ran, 205 were audibled to at the line of scrimmage.

Innovation & Evolution
One of the first and foremost things that Leach carried over from BYU upon being named head coach at Texas Tech was the insanely wide splits between his offensive linemen. Normally, each lineman would line up roughly 2-3″ from each other but Leach had his linemen lining up as much as a foot from one another. As assistant Clay McGuire, who played under Leach explained, “You’ve got a (defender) who runs 4.5 off the edge, and it’s going to take that half-step or split-second longer to get to the quarterback,” McGuire explains. “It opens up passing lanes and kind of helps the quarterback see things clearer.”

Dana Holgorsen, then offensive coordinator at Houston in 2008-2009 & Oklahoma State in 2010, came up with the diamond formation in part to help open the passing game, “We came up with the three-back system to isolate the outside guys.”

Another innovation credited with Holgorsen, if not developed earlier with coaches such as Art Briles, is the Y Stick passing play. Another extension of the running game, this allows for the slot WR to run a quick hitch or out depending upon the play of his defender while the outside receivers run a quick post and vertical to clear the area underneath. The other slot WR also runs a quick out or similar route for a quick gain. This play has since become as synonymous with the Air Raid as the Mesh or Shallow Cross routes and has transitioned into not only the NFL but nearly every playbook in college football, regardless of offensive concept.

As a result of this innovation and his reliance more on the running game, he helped add the wrinkle of a successful power running game to the Air Raid. In Houston in 2009, RBs Charles Sims & Bryce Beall combined for 1,368 yards rushing with 16 TD. On a team where the QB threw 700 passes for 5,671 yards. His 2010 Oklahoma State team was more balanced and he relied on Kendall Hunter whom ran for 1,502 yards with 16 TD.

Along with the formation came the gradual evolution of the option of throwing the ball. The QB was given the option of a WR screen on any given running play. If he saw the CB playing off the WR or biting on the run inside, the QB could throw the ball out for a screen pass.

The 2011 Houston Cougars, in large part due to OCs Kliff Kingsbury and Jason Phillips (whom learned the Run & Shoot under John Jenkins), set the offensive world on fire. QB Case Keenum threw for 5,631 yards with 48 TD vs. 5 INT in 603 passes. RBs Charles Sims & Michael Hayes combined for 1,548 yards and 20 TD on the ground.

The newest wrinkle came in the 2012 season at Louisiana Tech when OC Tony Franklin ran the offense through the Center, not the QB. As Tony Franklin explains, “With our deal,” Franklin says, “The quarterback doesn’t have to verbalize anything. He can focus on coverages and changing routes.” As a result of this, QB Colby Cameron threw for 4,147 yards with 31 TD vs. just 5 INT. RBs Kenneth Dixon & Ray Holley combined for 1,934 yards and 34 TD running the ball.

Air Raid Schools to Follow in 2013
Baylor: HC Art Briles
California: HC Sonny Dykes, OC Tony Franklin
East Carolina: HC Ruffin McNeil
Kentucky: HC Mark Stoops, OC Neal Brown
SMU: HC June Jones, Assistant Hal Mumme
Texas A&M: HC Kevin Sumlin
Texas Tech: HC Kliff Kingsbury, OCs Sonny Cumbie & Eric Morris
Washington State: HC/OC Mike Leach
West Virginia: HC Dana Holgorsen, OC Shannon Dawson


Written by David Hunter

David Hunter enjoys writing about wrestling, sports, music, and horror!

Leave a Reply