After years of the I-Formation and “Gumbo” offense, USC is immersing itself in the Air Raid under the leadership of Graham Harrell.
It is the Air Raid that almost wasn’t.
When the news broke that Kliff Kingsbury was leaving USC to become the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals, it appeared the Trojans were in for another uninspiring fall. The delay in hiring a new offensive coordinator only made matters worse and may have cost the Trojans a five-star recruit in Bru McCoy.
However, last week USC filled its vacant offensive coordinator position with Graham Harrell, who previously was the offensive coordinator for North Texas. This was a step in the right direction for Clay Helton because it signals an end to the “gumbo” madness that was the USC offense for the past three seasons.
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Yes, the student body righters may be rolling over in their graves or yelling at clouds because the “Air Raid” is coming to Troy, but a commitment to a clearly defined offensive system and leader in Harrell was desperately needed at USC.
But what exactly does the “Air Raid” mean? Are the Trojans going to put four or five receivers on the field every play and throw the ball 70 times a game? No. The numbers from North Texas last season indicate a much more balanced offense with the Mean Green attempting 38.8 passes and 35.5 rushes per game. Yes, there were four occasions in which Harrell’s offense attempted 10 more passes than rushes in a game, yet there were five games that the Mean Green attempted more rushes than passes.
The purpose of the Air Raid is not to simply set school passing records and anger staunch believers in the I-formation. The goal is to stress opponents by forcing defenders to maintain their assignments and win in one-on-one coverage while making consistent open field tackles.
Air Raid offenses are all about making simple reads and taking what the defense gives you. If the defense becomes too concerned with the pass and removes a defender from the box, the offense welcomes the opportunity to run the ball with an advantage in numbers.
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The system employs zone blocking schemes that are designed to take advantage of athletic offensive linemen. On rushing plays, the offensive line will slide a certain direction as a unit and double team the defensive linemen at the snap of the ball. The O-linemen then read who will continue blocking the D-linemen while the others move on to the second level to force linebackers to adjust their angle of attack. The running back is responsible for reading when he is supposed to make a cut off his original path based on the space that is created by the linemen pushing up-field.
In this example against Lane Kiffin’s (heard of him?) FAU Owls, the Mean Green are in a spread, four wide receiver set with one running back. The Owls have four down linemen and two linebackers in the box, plus a safety lurking just outside the area.
The zone-read action takes the safety and a defensive end out of the play, the right tackle and center seal the right edge of the line of scrimmage, and the guards both push up to take on linebackers. The running back is initially sweeping to the right but suddenly cuts up behind the center and is able to get past the linebackers due to the blocks by the offensive guards.
Offensive alignments like this force the defense to pick its poison, and will be even more dangerous with USC’s offensive talent (and maybe a mobile quarterback).
Harrell will also use seemingly identical blocking schemes to confuse defenses in the run and play-action game.
On this play, North Texas is in its base formation with three wide receivers, an H-back (a tight end that is offset from the line of scrimmage), and a running back.
The offensive line slides to the left with the H-back sealing the right edge from the backside defender. The center attempts to hold off the defensive tackle in the middle before breaking off to the next level of the defense. The Army DT is able to maintain his balance and get his arms on the running back, who runs through the hole created by the left tackle and guard, but the Army defender is unable to complete the tackle and North Texas scores.
Even when plays like this are not successful, they can set up even more explosive plays later in the game.
The next play is run out of the pistol formation but features the same personnel as the rushing touchdown and challenges the defense’s discipline through misdirection.
With the wide receivers on the left side lined up tight in the formation, the North Texas offensive line and quarterback, Mason Fine, sell the stretch play to the left as the big uglies slide that direction. However, the H-back takes on the defensive end away from the play-fake and the left guard pulls to the right for additional protection. As Fine rolls right on the bootleg, the slot receiver runs an intermediate-to-deep crossing route to pull both deep safeties forward. Meanwhile, the outside receiver is on a deep post behind the safeties and Fine is able to get the ball over the top to him (the crossing route was also open because the linebackers were moved forward by the play-action).
This type of misdirection adds a big-play element to an offensive system that is predicated on the ability to make quick, efficient throws into space. Air Raid offenses will lull defenses to sleep by taking what the opponent gives them on RPO’s or quick option routes that are dictated by coverage before striking with the downfield passes in one on one situations.
The Air Raid is very useful when facing zone coverage if the quarterback is able to make the correct, systematic reads. This play is out of 12 personnel (one RB, two TEs, and two receivers) but features routes to beat both man and zone coverage. North Texas protects with six players as both tight ends release into routes.
The tight end on the right and the slot receiver on the left run in-routes towards each other in what would be a pick-play against man coverage. Except the Louisiana Tech defense is playing a cover-3 zone on the backend and bringing a five-man pressure with the nickel corner as an extra rusher. The H-back looks as if he is going to pick up the nickel blitz, but instead simply delays the blitz and checks down into the flat as the safety valve for Fine. While all this is going on, the crossing routes create a great deal of separation between the linebackers and secondary, and the outside receiver is able to get inside the corner and underneath the free safety on a post for a solid 20-yard completion.
The ability to read the coverage and know where the ball is supposed to go is essential to an effective Air Raid system. If the quarterback makes improper reads, drives stall out in seconds and give the defense little time to recover on the sideline.
Harrell’s challenge over the spring and fall will be finding the players that fit his Air Raid system the best. At quarterback, zone reads, designed quarterback runs, and quick, easy reads and throws favor the more athletic Jack Sears. A mobile quarterback that is an accurate thrower (such as Marcus Mariota at Oregon) provides a significant upgrade to an Air Raid system. The playcalling is more balanced and the defense has to account for the quarterback’s legs on every play.
On the other hand, JT Daniels’ ability to drive the ball to the deeper parts of the field and the studious manner in which he carries himself opens up the playbook to include more route combinations and bigger chunk plays after nickel and diming the defense. The difference in styles between Sears and Daniels makes the quarterback competition a must-watch once again this offseason.
Meanwhile, the battle at running back will be decided by evaluating which runner is best at making his cut at the correct moment.
Stephen Carr is the prototype running back on the Trojans roster but must prove that he can return to the form he displayed in his freshman campaign to be the Trojans’ lead back.
Next, Vavae Malepeai is a tough, downhill runner that does a nice job of gaining positive yardage and looking for the cut back lane each time he touches the ball.
The third competitor, redshirt freshman Markese Stepp, has the look of a bruising NFL back that does not go down at first contact and can make defenders miss with surprising agility. Stepp is the darkhorse candidate in this running back group and could make a big impact for the Trojans in 2019 if he continues to build off his limited, but noteworthy, performances last season.
USC’s receivers will likely remain the same in 2019 with Michael Pittman and Tyler Vaughns playing the outside spots. Devon Williams and (potentially) Kyle Ford will back up the veteran duo and give Trojan fans a look into what the future of the USC receiving corps looks like.
Air Raid offenses love to feature big, physical players like Michael Crabtree, Dez Bryant, and Justin Blackmon to dominate one-on-one matchups. That means that Pittman and Vaughns need to continue to improve their ability to create separation and win contested balls this season because they will be relied upon to make tough catches in important moments both at the sticks and down the field.
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Much like the outside receiver position, the slot role for the Trojans probably won’t see much of a shakeup either with both Amon-Ra St. Brown and Velus Jones Jr. returning.
Jones Jr. will be deployed as the designated jet sweep receiver and is too explosive to be utilized as poorly as he was by Helton and company last season. He is the one Trojan receiver that is capable of stretching the field with his speed, and Harrell must find a way to capitalize on that.
Yet, St. Brown likely has the most to gain with the implementation of the Air Raid scheme at USC. The sophomore excels as a technical route runner and is adept at sitting down in holes in zone coverage. The quick-hitter nature of an Air Raid offense suits St. Brown’s ability to work in the middle of the field and use his quickness to create space from defenders.
The tight ends will be asked to be much better blockers in 2019. The H-back position is crucial in Harrell’s rushing scheme as it is responsible for being an active blocker that catches defenders off guard coming across the formation while retaining the ability to slow down a defensive end one on one.
Josh Falo will get the first crack at winning the starting job, but do not be surprised if Harrell gives a freshman like Jude Wolfe or Ethan Rae the opportunity to win the spot while Falo is flexed out to the perimeter.
(To read further on the positional battles this offseason, check out this write-up of the USC offense under Kliff Kingsbury and simply replace Kingsbury’s name with Harrell’s)
Overall, the arrival of Harrell to USC is a win for the program. While he is not the star-studded addition that Kliff Kingsbury was, he represents the overdue commitment to a style of play by Clay Helton.
The Men of Troy had to make drastic changes to their offense after the 2018 season because, to be frank, the offense was the problem with last year’s team.
How Harrell’s mastery of the Air Raid scheme as a player under Mike Leach translates to teaching it to others at a major college football program remains to be seen. However, simply employing a cohesive offensive strategy that puts USC’s talented offensive players in position to execute simple, yet efficient schemes above all should improve the effectiveness of the USC offense this year.