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West Virginia plays the Air Raid remix

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West Virginia replaced cutting edge offensive mind Dana Holgorsen with another Air Raid coach from the Mike Leach coaching tree. But this one has a more holistic approach to winning football games.

NCAA Football: Dollar General Bowl-Buffalo vs Troy John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

While young, and younger than his predecessor Dana Holgorsen, new West Virginia head coach Neal Brown is one of the earliest branches to have come off the Mike Leach coaching tree. Brown was a seldom used WR at Kentucky back when Hal Mumme was the head man and Mike Leach was a little known assistant. From there, Brown spent much of his career with short stints as the OC for Texas Tech under Tommy Tuberville when he replaced Mike Leach and then at Kentucky under Mark Stoops.

Within the last two decades since he learned college football under the auspices of the head pirate, Brown has coached under two defensive head coaches in Tuberville and Stoops along with another Air Raider in Tony Franklin. Consequently, his teams and overall program philosophy don’t really resemble that of some other prominent Air Raid coaching tree products.

Neal Brown at Troy

Year Record S&P+ Off S&P+ Def S&P+ S/T S&P+ 247 Recruiting rank
Year Record S&P+ Off S&P+ Def S&P+ S/T S&P+ 247 Recruiting rank
2015 4-8 (3-5) -5.9 (92nd) 24.8 (93rd) 29.9 (78th) -.7 (91st) 117th (8th)
2016 10-3 (6-2) .9 (63rd) 27.4 (80th) 26.9 (45th) .4 (45th) 98th (4th)
2017 11-2 (7-1) 7.5 (31st) 29.2 (58th) 21 (17th) -.8 (125th) 96th (2nd)
2018 10-3 (7-1) 6.5 (40th) 28.4 (75th) 23.7 (38th) 1.8 (9th) 98th (4th)

A less skilled Air Raid attack

None of Neal Brown’s Troy offenses were particularly explosive. While some of his Tech offenses produced the normal 4k-yard passing season from the Leach roster that Brown and Tuberville inherited, his subsequent offenses have not had that same level of pass game production. Three of his four Troy offenses featured a 1k-yard RB and QB Brandon Silvers was the highest producing passer hitting 3180 yards at only 6.9 ypa in 2016 and then 3290 yards at 7.4 ypa in 2017.

The Troy passers simply weren’t quite as skilled as the guys Leach had always assembled in Lubbock or that Dana Holgorsen has accumulated (typically via transfer) in Morgantown. However, for much of his time in Alabama Brown did have a fullback, the 6-0/248 pound Zacc Weldon. With that useful piece, Brown was able to build some spread-I formation schemes at Troy built around inside zone blocking with a dozen ways to blast his fullback into DEs and LBs:

The Troy offense probably took as many deep shots as West Virginia and regularly tried to get in on the spread-iso game, mixing in RPOs, Bob Stitt sweeps, play-action, sucker screens, and switch routes to try and get WRs open on the perimeter or down the field. The only difference was that they didn’t hit theirs with anything close to the precision of Will Grier.

Their physicality was notable though, particularly for an Air Raid team, and allowed them to smack LSU in the mouth back in 2017 and deliver a shocking upset win on the road.

The main difference between West Virginia and Troy on offense over the last few years has been the superior skill level of the Mountaineer passing game and then the superior physicality and run game versatility of the Troy attack. Dana Holgorsen certainly ran inside zone and used some bigger ancillary blockers but his teams preferred to put their focus on the passing game when they had the means to do so. They even regularly deployed one-man brute squad Trevon Wesco last year as a POP pass target rather than just bashing defenders out of the way with him.

A physical, balanced program

While Brown built some solid rushing attacks and utilized spread O best practices, what really put Troy over the top against the rest of the Sun Belt was their defense and special teams. Brown committed a not insignificant portion of their practices to special teams in order to yield their results there.

What’s more, they tackled every day in practice and clearly made physicality a key point to their approach as a football with a downhill run game and a defense that had a knack for tackling and stripping the ball.

Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, who’s following Brown to West Virginia, has a long career running 4-2-5/3-3-5 defenses that blur the differences between the schemes with movement and stemming between multiple formations. The Trojan defense had a number of hybrid positions with confusing names like the “bandit” (OLB/DE hybrid), “cat safety” (safety aligned to the field), and “spear safety” (OLB aligned to the field). It’s very similar to Todd Graham’s scheme.

Koenning played a pair of sub 220 pound LBs at their middle and boundary positions and then 224-pound Hunter Reese in the “bandit” position. Between that and utilizing three safeties and some fairly versatile corners, the back end of the Trojan defense was often an amorphous blob that shifted into a variety of mostly quarters-based coverages behind extensive movement and zone-blitzing up front.

The struggle that Koenning and the West Virginia D may find in the Big 12 relates to the same issue that may be a boon to Neal Brown and the West Virginia O. The skill level in the passing game is much higher amongst Big 12 recruits than it is for Sun Belt players.

Koenning’s down-sized defenses were designed out of a need for a scheme to handle “spread to run” offenses. Defensive coaches have learned that the move back in the 80s by Jimmy Johnson’s Miami defenses to prioritize speed at every position has not yet reached the end of its positive returns. A 4-2-5/3-3-5 nickel scheme with hybrid backers, extensive stunts and blitzes, and the ability to bring DBs into the run fit from every position in the secondary without tipping off the offense all serves to better stop rushing attacks than bigger defenses. Particularly spread rushing attacks.

The calculus gets pretty simple, giving up a few first downs via the run game isn’t going to kill you so flooding the field with athletes and stunting into the backfield hunting for tackles for loss can kill drives. What’s more, the team speed makes it easier to avoid yielding scores because the team pursuit is good and can force the offense to convert in the red zone where space tightens. Koenning’s defenses clearly pride themselves on playing the ball with good leverage and fundamentals as tacklers, attacking the ball with strips and swipes, or playing the ball in coverage. Speed and ball skills are stated priorities for Koenning when he discusses what he looks for in a player.

The only complication is the same one that countless other defensive coaches have had faced when coming into the Big 12. The paradigm is different, you have to stop the pass first and then worry about the run. The schemes you made your name with while stopping spread rushing attacks in another conference have less value in your new context. The concern is less in attacking the box with different run defenses and instead figuring out how to play matchups in space against the passing game without giving up 40 points. Koenning’s early comments at West Virginia seem to reflect a sense of that but it’s only a first step to understand what you’re up against and another to innovate or adapt so that you can handle it.

Overall Neal Brown is bringing a balanced and holistic approach to program management and team building combined with the same Air Raid philosophy as everyone else. If he and his staff can work out how to embrace the advantages of coaching Big 12 skill players while maintaining their program focus on toughness, defense, and special teams it could provide the Mountaineers with an edge over their competition.