With the 1,200 ring circus known as SEC Media Days out of the way, we can finally turn our full attention to the on-field prospects rather than the off-field antics of a certain number of players. While the official start of the season may be a number of weeks away, fans around the conference, and particularly in the Commonwealth, are looking forward to new beginnings. However, these new beginnings will bring about something very familiar for Kentucky fans; the pass happy offense known as the “Air Raid.” Points and pass yards are trademarks of this particular system, but much like the spread offense, every coach has their own definition of the system and implements their personality into the offense. Neal Brown is no different as his version of the Air Raid reflects his individual preferences and the coaches he served under. Often times, people hear “Air Raid” or “Spread Offense” and assume those particular systems are identical, but this isn’t the case, not even close. Because of this, I observed hundreds of offensive plays from both Neal Brown’s Texas Tech offense and the Mumme/Leach Kentucky offenses to compare and contrast the styles of play.
Earlier this summer, I concluded that 77% of Neal Brown’s offensive play calls were run from some variation of the shotgun formation (mainly from Shotgun Spread and Shotgun Trips). 19% were run from the Pistol formation, while the other 4% were run from the Wildcat. From my observations, a vast majority of shotgun plays included five or six linemen, three to four wide receivers, and a running back to the quarterback’s side. Tight ends were also featured, but as a whole, the traditional wide receiver was used more often. The SEC will likely force Brown to utilize tight ends more often for blocking purposes, but we’ll see in time. Overall, Brown’s offense will spread the field in every formation, whether that be Shotgun, Pistol, or Wildcat. Examples of Texas Tech spreading the field through formations can be found here, here, and here.
Neal Brown utilized three formations last season, but Mumme and Leach choose to use a wide variety of formations to throw off the opposing defenses. While Mumme and Leach frequently utilized the shotgun formation, they used many more traditional alignments with the quarterback taking snaps under center. In the below video of Kentucky’s 1997 victory over Louisville, you can see a handful of different examples. The 0:34 mark below shows Couch taking a snap under center in the pro set formation, something I’ve never observed with Brown. Also, Mumme and Leach called numerous plays out of the ace formation with Couch under center and a single running back about 5-yards behind. Something else I found in my observations was that Kentucky seemed to be aligned tighter under Mumme and Leach. It was almost as if they took the approach of spreading out the defense with routes rather than the combination of routes and alignments. There’s nothing really wrong with this as both methods are effective, but that’s just an observation.
This aspect of coaching wasn’t drastically different as all three coaches had similar pass/run distributions and passing concepts. If you’re unfamiliar, the Air Raid, in a way, is considered a “simple” offense. In this case, “simple” means that there are only a handful of plays used to throw off the defense. Granted these are run from different formations to keep the defense honest, but at the core, it’s a somewhat simple offense. However, the difficulty in defending this offense comes with the spread nature and route running. The following concepts are present in all three coaches playbooks; mesh, Y-option, dig, Y-cross, all curl, and corner-post-corner. The following link to SmartFootball.com explains the previously mentioned plays, and a number of others, in more advanced detail. These are all basic “Air Raid” techniques that coaches from West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen to Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin have at their disposal. Many teams know it’s coming, but the spacing and route running are something that defenses constantly struggle with.
As for pass/rush distributions, all three coaches obviously favor the pass, but Mumme and Leach liked to toss the ball around more often than Brown. In their time as play callers for Kentucky, Mumme and Leach usually threw the ball around 65% of the time while rushing the other 35% of the time. In 1999 after Tim Couch left for the NFL and Mike Leach left for Oklahoma, the Cats passed around 56% of the time while rushing nearly 44% of the time. This attrition and a stable of running backs that included Anthony White, Derek Homer, and Artose Pinner likely explain the one year change. Neal Brown, however, was a model of play calling consistency in his time as Red Raider offensive coordinator as he was near a 60-40 pass/rush distribution every single year he coached. This, in my mind, will be highly important in his time as Wildcat offensive coordinator as SEC defenses are considered to be better and more adaptive than Big 12 defenses. A balanced playbook is a necessity in this league.
To conclude, all three Air Raid coaches at Kentucky have their similarities, but they do have a certain number of differences. First would be the formations. While Mumme and Leach commanded the offense to take a handful of snaps under center at Kentucky, Brown will likely not be having any of that as he’s exclusively a shotgun/pistol guy. The downfield passing concepts are mostly similar as all three coaches use the trademark “Air Raid” passing techniques like mesh, shallow, and curl. Perhaps the biggest difference comes in the pass/rush distributions as Neal Brown elects to rush the ball more often to keep the defense in check. Although, Mumme and Leach are famous for utilizing tremendously short/quick passes to take place of the running game. This is the final difference between Brown and the previous “Air Raid” staff. Mumme and Leach used more quick hitting passes while it takes slightly longer for Brown’s play calls to develop. Both are equally effective, it just boils down to personal preference. While these three Kentucky “Air Raid” coaches have their similarities, there are numerous differences. This coming fall, I’d expect a ton of shotgun and pistol alignments with longer developing plays and a 60-40 pass/rush distribution.