May 18, 2013

Air Raid 101: Basics and Y-Stick

The Air Raid offense has come a long way over the last 15 years, and over that time period the offense's reputation has gradually changed from gimmick to mainstream, from a one-school wonder to one of the most popular offenses in college football.

Texas Tech fans are more familiar with the offense than most, as the Red Raiders have run some variation of system uninterrupted since Mike Leach was hired in 1999. From Leach to Neal Brown and now Kliff Kingsbury, each coach has put their own stamp on the offense but the core plays at the center of the Air Raid -- Y-Stick, Y-Corner, Y-Cross, H-Stick, H-Corner, Mesh, Shallow and the tunnel screen -- have, for the most part, stayed the same.

West Virginia head coach, and former Tech assistant, Dana Holgorsen and Kingsbury have probably tweaked the offense more than any other Air Raid gurus, but it's still the same crazy beast.

A BRIEF HISTORY LESSON

When Hal Mumme was still the head coach at Copperas Cove High School, he and a few assistants decided they wanted to throw the football around a lot more than what was common in the late 1980s. Mumme had seen what BYU could do in the passing game behind quarterbacks like Ty Detmer and Steve Young, and he wanted to get better insight into LaVell Edwards' offense. So, Mumme's staff started making pilgrimages to Provo about twice a year to study the Cougars' high-flying offense.

Mumme and Co. then began implementing the offense at Copperas Cove nearly verbatim. Things really took off when Mumme became the head coach at Iowa Wesleyan -- which is where Leach first enters the picture -- and later Valdosta State. Mumme and Leach refined what would become the Air Raid by passing the ball even more than LaVell Edwards did at BYU, tweaked a few route combinations and increased the number of snaps from shotgun. By the time Kentucky hired Mumme in 1996, the duo had essentially created what is the basis for all modern versions of the Air Raid.

So, why exactly did they create the Air Raid? To level the playing field, of course. At the time, no one was throwing the ball around a ton other than Edwards and Bill Walsh, the creator of the West Coast offense and head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. Mumme and Leach created an offense that focused on stretching the field in both horizontal and vertical columns. Through this, theoretically, you create too many receivers in open space for a zone defense to cover. So, mathematically, there should always be at least one route open in zone coverage. Plays like mesh and the "Y" plays can work against either man or zone coverage, however, as receivers have built in options with their routes depending on the coverage.

With this new offense, Leach and Mumme were able to create a system that allowed average quarterbacks and receivers to beat the matchup game without actually winning their one-on-one matchups. It also helped that most teams were not equipped with the formations or personnel defensively to cover the inside receivers that would make the Air Raid so potent.

NUTS AND BOLTS

In the original Air Raid, the left outside receiver is labeled X, the halfback is labeled H, the fullback is labeled F, the tight end -- or second inside receiver in some Air Raids -- is labeled Y and the right outside receiver is labeled as Z. The very base Air Raid offense formation, called Blue, is diagramed below with the play called Mesh.

Something some people may find surprising about the Air Raid is the fact that the offense is entirely right-handed. What I mean by that is that no formation is ever flipped. Mumme and Leach allowed only the Z receiver to change sides of the field, and the H, traditionally a running back, will transform into a receiver when changing to a four wide or trips formation. He may also play on either side as a receiver. But, there is no such things as Y-Stick left, switch or whatever you may want to call it. Here's a formation with the switch on. Trips left in the Air Raid is referred to as Late. H-Wheel is the name of the play below.
The reasoning behind this rule is to cut the number of routes that each receiver has to run in half. If you can get twice as many repetitions in on one route as opposed to two, then the execution and attention to detail of the play will increase. When Mumme and Leach made this decision, their quarterback at Valdosta State, Chris Hatcher, saw his completion percentage jump by nearly 10 percent.

(As a side note: Holgorsen and Kingsbury have changed this rule in their versions of the offense. They'll move Y around as well as H and Z from what I've been able to tell so far. We'll cover this later on.)

Those are the basic ground rules for the formations, so let's dive deeper into an actual play. Y-Stick. This play is an absolute Air Raid staple, no matter the coach, so I figured that I'd cover it first.

A KEY PLAY AND ITS EVOLUTION: Y-STICK

I doubt there is any play in the entire Air Raid repertoire that is more symbolic of the entire system than Y-Stick. The formation below is a classic four wide, two-by-two look, called Ace in the Air Raid.

Now, as you can see, the Y-receiver, who for Texas Tech this year will be Jace Amaro, is the second read in the quarterback's progression but he's usually the player that will get the ball. This is due to the fact that there is a hole in the zone defense created by the running backs route to the flats. The safety, nickel or strongside linebacker will, usually, have to choose to cover either the tailback in the flats or the Y-receiver, and, traditionally, will pick the flats. That leaves a hole for the Y to shuffle outside and catch the ball while facing the quarterback. Against man coverage, the Y receiver will run the stick again, but he'll usually cut in a much more vicious fashion to get a good release of the defensive back, pivot inside and wait for the ball.

This is considered a high-percentage play because it's usually an easy throw that will move the ball forward no matter what defense you might be facing.

The reason this play is so effective is because it can be run against any coverage with some level of success. As you can see, the Z runs a fade with an outside release to blow the top off the defense, the Y runs the stick, and the tailback runs to the flats in order to stretch the field horizontally. When you combine these three routes, it creates a vertical stretch against a defense, as I talked about earlier.

Now that we've covered what basic Y-stick looks like, let's get into what Holgorsen and Kingsbury have done to flip this play on its head and create something entirely different.

Here's an example of Kingsbury running a variation of Y-Stick against Alabama last year. Note that the formation is Blue, so it's the classic, traditional formation.


A&M receiver Ryan Swope is lined up at Y, and he'll be the "stick" man on this play. However, here's where things start to get really interesting. instead of running the traditional version of Y-stick where F will run out into the flat in order to create a vertical stretch, he's going to do something entirely different: go for a draw block. The offensive line is about to draw block as well. In fact, the entire offense, other than Manziel and Swope at Y, is going to run the play like a draw. This is what the new school Air Raid has evolved into. In fact, this is what spread football and general is beginning to embrace.

This is called a packaged play -- a play that is both a run and a pass, not one or the other. Meaning, the quarterback will read the play much like a zone read but his options are to hand it off or pass it instead of hand it off or keep it.

On this play, Manziel will read the linebacker (blue line). If the linebacker sits back and decides to cover Swope, then Manziel would hand the ball off to H, making it a full blown draw play. If the linebacker bites on the draw, however, he is to throw the stick to Y, who should be wide open.


As you can see, the linebacker starts creeping up prior to the snap and then blitzes as the play begins. This will leave Swope wide open. Notice that the safety, circled in green, appears to have off-coverage on Swope, essentially replacing the blitzing linebacker in coverage. But, off-coverage isn't going to do much against a well run stick.

Now, we see the completion.


Swope is completely wide open, and you can see him catching the ball above. As Swope is catching the ball, I want you to notice the offensive line, who I've circled in blue. The left guard is still going on with his draw duties, as he's moving upfield and trying to get to the linebacker. The rest of the offensive line is doing the same now, pushing the man they have blocked down field. This indicates that it is indeed a true packaged play.

Kingsbury and Holgorsen have really taken the building blocks created by Mumme and Leach and created something that is all their own, and that's really what I want to share with those interested in the new Red Raider offense.

That's it for this installment, but we'll get into much much more next time.


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