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Checking in on Mike Leach

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Washington State v Washington Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

There was a period where it wasn’t totally clear whether or not Leach’s program could still translate in the modern college game. The rest of the Air Raid world has largely moved on from his original “how do we scheme to totally emphasize the quick passing game” as disciples like Dana Holgorsen have put some emphasis back on the run game.

Variations of the Air Raid can still be found in the Big 12 at Oklahoma, Texas Tech, TCU, Kansas, and West Virginia but no one does it quite like Leach did and the modern, hybrid forms often involve mobile QBs or power running games.

Meanwhile out at Washington State Leach was still plugging away and swinging his sword the way he’s accustomed to doing, and then breakthrough came...

As you’ll notice from this chart, and from Bill Connelly’s 2016 preview of the Cougars, some of the breakthrough was simply a result of luck in close games. However, much like another somewhat lucky team who was always in the right position in 2015, the Cougars seem like they could be even better in 2016 thanks to returning so many crucial components.

Here’s how Leach put Wazzu on the cusp of challenging for the Pac 12 north in 2015

The Cougars made two big changes in 2015 that led to breakthrough in terms of victories. The first was hiring Alex Grinch to install the Tampa-2 defense in Pullman that had helped Missouri be competitive in the SEC despite recruiting behind much of the rest of the conference.

The second was simply having young QB Luke Falk at the helm for the entire season rather than just the last four games of the year. Between those two adjustments, Leach was able to leverage his own system and a defensive equivalent to make the most of what is perhaps the Pac-12’s lowest-rated collection of recruits.

Falk was a largely overlooked part of a bigger theme in 2015 in which unheralded quarterback recruits largely dominated the landscape. Falk had to walk on at Washington State after losing all of his opportunities when he missed his junior year. Market inefficiencies in the college recruiting system strike again. That said, even his senior year only saw him average 6.4 yards per attempt for his Utah high school, which hardly won him many late opportunities and opened the door for Wazzu to get him to walk on.

The skills he did demonstrate in high school have translated brilliantly to Leach’s Air Raid. Falk is simply accurate and has always been good at leading receivers and making touch throws into windows. This example of Falk hitting River Cracraft on “Y-cross” is typical of what 2015 looked like for the Cougars:

Falk first reads the Cal field safety and sees him taking away the deep alert route and then checks if the nickel has enough depth to take away the cross or not. He doesn’t, and Falk fits the ball into the window for a first down. He was excellent at reading the leverage of defenders and beating traffic, throwing only eight interceptions in 644 attempts. That interception rate of 1.24% would have been the best in the Big 12 in 2015 and was safely the best in the Pac-12 as well:

No one was throwing many picks to Pac-12 defenses last year, suggesting it was a rather easy thing to avoid, but Falk appearing at the top of the list in both INT rate and attempts demonstrates how trustworthy he was with the heavy burden placed on his arm by Leach’s system. That was a function of how well he understood the system and how well he threw his receivers away from defenders.

Meanwhile the Tampa-2 system Grinch installed helped the Cougars play solid pass defense, finishing 37th in passing S&P in 2015. The nature of Tampa-2 is to allow safeties to sit on vertical routes without getting overstressed by play-action or four-verticals combinations like they can in quarters or cover 3. If a quarterback wants to beat Tampa-2 deep he needs to use his eyes to manipulate people and zip throws into windows down the field, which is difficult. The result is that offenses have to settle for running the ball or throwing check downs and breaking tackles, which isn’t terribly sexy to modern up-tempo teams.

Grinch also got into the Tampa-2 coverage in a variety of different ways besides simply dropping the middle linebacker down the pipe and mixed in quarters as a change of pace and useful run defense. Those tactics tended to set Wazzu apart from the rest of the conference on defense in addition to offense. It’s always helpful when you are recruiting to different roles from your rivals and throwing tactics at opponents that they aren’t also facing most other Saturdays.

How can Wazzu make another leap in 2016?

The fact is the Cougars will need to make another leap even to repeat their nine-win triumph since they can’t count on winning four out of five close games again. What they need instead is to be able to blow some people out.

There are two types of players that could have an enormous impact on the Cougars such as to allow such a leap, one on offense and the other on defense. On offense, the Cougars need Falk to do better than avoiding turnovers and averaging 7.08 yards per passing attempt. There are two main types of receiver in the Air Raid that can solve this issue of lack of explosiveness and Leach has coached each kind.

The first is a possession receiver who can own the “throw it short to people who can score” original mantra of the Air Raid. Robert Lewis is probably their best bet here, a little water bug type who had the highest “yards per target” numbers of any WR on the team with 8.8.

The other would be the Michael Crabtree deep threat that can always serve as a heat check for Falk running down the sideline. Leach hasn’t had as many of these but if Wazzu were to find a dominant outside receiver on the roster there’s no doubt that would help.

Defensively the Cougars could make a sizable leap if they found one great pass-rusher. What made Missouri brilliant in this system was developing pass-rushers that could beat the quarterback before he could either manipulate zone defenders or reach his check down options against the Tampa-2 coverages.

Here the Cougars return DE Hercules Mata’afa, who had seven sacks a year ago, and are plugging in a half-dozen other Samoans up front as well that have shown promise for Grinch and Leach. If someone like Logan Tago were to take over the rush-backer position and add a second solid pass-rushing threat then you’d see that show up all over the defense, including in the form of turnovers.

Mix in more explosive plays on offense while continuing to avoid interceptions and then pick up a few more with your own defense and you have a recipe to truly stand out in the Pac-12. It doesn’t appear Mike Leach and his system are going away anytime soon.