Jalen Hurts’ transfer to Oklahoma is the next chapter in the evolution of the Air Raid
Growing up with a DJ for a father, I learned a valuable lesson about something called The Essence. From present day Hip-Hop and R&B, there is a thread woven through Disco, Funk, Jazz, Rock & Roll, Soul, Blues, and Gospel. This almost genetic link between genres and eras tie the stars and styles of today to their ancestral counterparts, legitimizing the expression of today and preserving the methods of before despite their musical differences. Whether you use pianos or synthesizers, 4-tracks or Pro Tools, live instrumentation or samples, all parties are drawing from that same Essence.
This applies just as well to sports, and one only needs to squint slightly to see the lineage in football. Because of the extreme level of information sharing, offensive football seems to set a new high water mark every season. Where this ultimately leads, in spite of what may appear to be more styles of play than a fan can keep track of, is a kind of homogeneity in the face of innovation.
When the sun beams down on Owen Field on Labor Day Weekend, the newest transfer QB to ride the Sooner Schooner will be Alabama’s Jalen Hurts. The Hurts/Lincoln Riley partnership will be one in a series of exhibits in the trial of the Air Raid’s viability. Whether it’s a young coach bringing the system to a blue blood program, an offensive mind bringing his ‘college offense’ to the highest level, or a coach trying to maximize his personnel, the narrative behind the system is entering what may be the biggest year in its existence.
This particular system of offense, despite its prevalence in all levels of football, is critiqued similarly to the triple option: a niche offense beneath the dignity of the elite in football. What many fail to see is the similarity to the more conventional West Coast Offense, as well as a generation of Air Raid coaches who have played in the NFL or worked alongside coaches who are more traditional in approach, and applying those methods to their own style of play.
Even the highly educated often confuse scheme and philosophy in football. As Oklahoma convenes to prepare for spring ball and the 2019 season, the college football world will quietly come to realize what the tape seems to be shouting – Jalen Hurts and Lincoln Riley are more than prepared for each other’s style, and the Air Raid is positioned as well as it’s ever been.
95, 94, 92 – A “Brand New” Sound
Since the conception of the offense by Hal Mumme, Lavell Edwards, and Mike Leach, “95” has been a money play for the Air Raid. The ‘window dressing’ and progression around the concept depends on the play caller, but the core is consistent – a flood concept with one high/low stretch along the sideline and one coming across the middle of the field. Any kind of offense can use the play, as a base pass or off play action.
Jalen Hurts has experience and comfort making his reads and throws from the pocket with this concept, and Lincoln Riley is true to his Air Raid roots in how often he calls the play.
The sister concept to “Y-Cross” is “Y-Sail”, designed to create a three level high/low stretch along the sideline, known in football to be one of the go-to Cover 3 “beater” concepts.
In time, defenses playing in Cover 3 have improved in defending this concept with pattern matching principles. Offenses then respond by employing “switch” releases, popularized by the Run & Shoot offense, to confuse a defense by rapidly moving routes in and out of coverage areas.
Now, instead of Y-Sail playing out like the diagram above, it plays out more like below:
When done properly, it leaves the shorter of the two routes wide open.
The “Mesh” concept, much like Y-Sail and Y-Cross, floods multiples areas of the field as the play develops. The design of the play aims to get a speedy receiver across the field by creating traffic to hold defenders up and force fast communication.
Much like 94 & 95, this concept can be found down at the youth level, and was an instrumental play for the Philadelphia Eagles securing a title in Super Bowl 52.
There are multitudes of other routes to build into a mesh concept, and Riley will be as pleased to know Hurts is familiar, as Hurts will be to work with a coach who has an expansive library of Mesh variations.
Daggers & Scissors–Crate digging
A key pro-style passing concept is “Dagger”. Popularized by NFL coaches who used the run game and play action to attack behind linebackers, Dagger is a concept designed to work against any coverage and built to clear out all defenders in order to target the Dig route coming across the field. An easy concept to teach and execute, it is of little mystery why it shows up on the call sheet of both Riley and Kiffin.
Much as Dagger isolates a particular receiver in the soft, intermediate area of a defense, “Scissors” attacks the deeper zones of a defense by forcing defenders to cover receivers breaking away from their coverage at full speed. As the WRs essentially work a late switch, the QB is relying on a defender falling off a route during the confusion.
QB Runs and Making Hits by Sampling
This season gave viewers their first look into what a Lincoln Riley offense might look like with a dynamic runner at the QB position. Kyler Murray is a dynamite athlete, and may be faster and more agile than Hurts.
There is no substitute for 220 pounds, though, especially considering Hurts’ reputation for being a diligent worker in the weight room. This opens up the possibility of Riley using Hurts on designed QB runs, which Hurts has used to amass nearly 2,000 career rushing yards and over 20 TDs during his Alabama career.
Riley’s offense has some of necessary ingredients to maximize his new QB’s legs, by using pullers and extra blockers to create run fit issues for defenses.
The best coaches borrow from the best coaches, and Riley can look to how Ohio State used J.T. Barrett as a battering ram, and how Louisville used Lamar Jackson as their speed back as examples for how he may decide to utilize Hurts, especially in the red zone. Ohio State and Louisville had a high amount of formational diversity, because playing from empty or heavy personnel did not require a sacrifice of effective running or dynamic playmaking.
In 2019, it is evident that the labels of offense that used to differentiate who-runs-what have dissolved. Outside of the triple option, the current variations of the Run & Shoot, and Gus Malzahn’s spread adaptation of the Wing-T, the idea of The System is dead. It would be wrong to debate whether Oklahoma will play more like Alabama had in 2016, because the truth of the matter is that the offensive structure is simply not that much different.
Just how far and how high Hurts can catapult this team will depend on how explosive he can be as a passer, and how aggressive Riley is in using him as a runner. As far as the scheme is concerned, do not be surprised if the narrative on the Air Raid changes and cements the offense as less of a niche system and more of another ingredient in the same Essence from which all of the best coaches are drawing their creativity.