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Air Raid Offense Series: The Skill Players

A well implemented route tree is the key to making skill players explosive in the Air Raid offense.

South Florida vs Central Florida Photo by Logan Bowles/Getty Images

This is part three of our Air Raid offense series. After looking over the history and principles of the offense, we’ve covered the basics of offensive line play. Here, we will cover the skill positions and their respective routes.

The Air Raid sought to utilize all five skill positions in the passing game to make a defense cover every part of the field.

F = running back

H = h-back/inside receiver

Y = tight end/inside receiver

X and Z = wide receiver

All offensive systems have some form of a route tree -- the composite of all routes run by all positions. They tend to be very similar as there are only so many ways a player can run a route or have one drawn up. Despite the similarities, it’s the installation and combination of the route tree that sets systems apart. Below is an example of a route tree that Air Coryell made famous in the NFL, as well as a number route tree commonly used.

Air Coryell route tree, as made famous by NFL coach Don Coryell

Numbered route tree commonly used in run-based offenses

For the Air Raid the thinking goes that if you divide up touches as equally as possible, the defense won’t be able to key in on any single player or position. While at Texas Tech, Mike Leach kept this balance seeing that total yardage was split evenly between receivers. Only F-backs gained more yardage, with the difference being primarily through the rushing attempts they garnered.

Receiver Route Tree

The X and Z routes run the gamut -- everything from stop and comeback routes, inside drags, and deep downfield targets. The purpose of each route can change from clearing out space in zones for other players or run to daylight for the catch themselves. These positions combined to account for approximately 27% of the touches and 40% of the yards under Leach’s offense at Tech.

Tight End and H-back Route Tree

The Y and H position runs a simpler route tree. They most often act as an underneath option or hot route. They accumulated 27% of touches and 32% of the yards under Leach.

Running Back Route Tree

The running back tree comes with an asterisk. Besides running the ball, running backs are tasked with pass protection in the Air Raid. Remembering back to the offensive line primer, they were responsible for the “3” rusher, as well as the first immediate threat in pass protection. In the absence of a threat, the running back would release to one of these routes unless the play specifically called for their release.

This position usually accounted for the check down, or last option underneath when all downfield options were covered up by the defense. Including rushing, the F-back touched the ball 34% of the time and was responsible for over 25% of all yards in Leach’s offense at Tech.

By combining these routes, Hal Mumme and Mike Leach were able to piece together an effective offense taking advantage of whatever defensive strategy was thrown at them. The ability to adapt on the fly with the route tree, combined with relentless practice of technique, has allowed this system to flourish.

We will continue this series by covering specific combined concepts over the next several articles.