The air raid offense, which was made popular by the likes of Hal Mumme and Mike Leach, is currently undergoing a facelift.
While some teams still run the pure air raid — including Mississippi State under Leach — other teams have begun to adopt certain air raid principles, while combining it with another offensive scheme, such as the west coast offense.
That was the case with Western Kentucky last season. Despite bringing in a host of players and coaches from Houston Baptist, including offensive coordinator Zach Kittley and quarterback Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky’s head coach, Tyson Helton, didn’t consider last season’s offense to be a true air raid.
“I’ve been very blessed to be a part of some really good offenses and top offenses in the country. There’s a lot of different ways to win and have offensive production, but I’ve always been intrigued by the air raid passing game part and the tempo part,” Helton told Underdog Dynasty at Conference USA Media Day.
“So, last year with Bailey [Zappe] coming in and offensive coordinator Zach Kittley … what we did was kind of molded what we did best over the years and some west coast offense mindset with the air raid principles and tempo.”
For comparison, Helton says his offense is similar to that of USC head coach Lincoln Riley’s offense.
“I think back to Lincoln Riley when he kind of embraced that. He was true air raid and then he kind of evolved in multiple personnel and you gotta be able to run the football and do some play actions off of that,” Helton explained. “I think college football is going more that way. So it’s not just the true air raid but for Western [Kentucky], when we combined those two it was kind of lightning in a bottle for us and we had the personnel to do it so that helps a lot.”
What exactly are some of the differences between this blend of the west coast and air raid that the Hilltoppers have seen and typical air raid offenses? To start, Western Kentucky is willing to run the ball more.
Last season, Western Kentucky ran the ball a total of 354 times. Among their leaders in rushing were running backs Noah Whittington and Adam Cofield, who combined for 182 carries. Cofield has since graduated and Whittington transferred to Oregon, but sophomore Kye Robichaux is the team’s leading returning rusher in 2022.
While Mike Leach’s Mississippi State’s, a “true” air raid, top two ran the ball more often — with Jo’Quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson combining for 195 attempts — the Bulldogs ran the ball just 270 times.
“I think if you’re not proficient running the football, you’re going to play in two or three football games a year where you’re going to face really good defenses and you’re not going to have an answer,” Helton said. “I was trained [that] the for-sure way is to run the football, that is the for-sure way because if you have a really sound run game, you’re going to keep defenses honest.”
Helton explained that, by having a running game, the Hilltoppers are able to keep defenders in the box, giving them an opportunity to attack using their air raid passing concepts.
“We like to throw the football a lot so you’re going to get a lot of drop-eight coverage. Well, don’t bang your head on the wall, you need to hand the football off when the box is right and so, just those little simple things here and there,” Helton said.
“We’re not a team that sits here and says we’re going to lead the league in rushing but I’d like to think when we need to, we’re proficient at it. I think back to the bowl game where we played App State, we rushed for over 200 yards and the reason being, based upon what they were doing defensively, they gave us a good box to go run the football. So, that’s the biggest thing about offensive football, you gotta be able to take advantage of what the defense gives you. Even though we’re an air raid principle team, we’re going to do whatever it takes to win.”
And maybe Western Kentucky’s Boca Raton Bowl victory over App State, as Helton alluded to, is the perfect example of what the Hilltopper’s offense truly is.
Yes, Bailey Zappe threw it 47 times and finished with 422 yards and 6 touchdown passes but they ran the ball efficiently and effectively. Western Kentucky finished the game with 28 attempts for 216 yards and two touchdowns, both by running backs.
The other fundamental difference comes in the personnel on the field, specifically with the tight end position.
Air raid offenses aren’t known for their use of tight ends, opting instead to use multiple wide receivers to create mismatches.
Western Kentucky, on the other side, is willing to use the tight end position within their offense. Last season, their tight end was Joey Beljan, who finished with 394 snaps according to Pro Football Focus data.
Looking ahead to the 2022 season, there’s a possibility that the Hilltoppers will see an increase in two tight-end sets. Not only does Beljan, who served as Western Kentucky’s offensive representative at media day, return but the Hilltoppers also see the return of Joshua Simon, who saw his season end in the opener following a knee injury.
“If you probably ask most coordinators, play callers, when it comes to just the tight end piece, what would be your favorite personnel? It’d be 12 personnel (one running back, two tight ends), two tight ends that can line out as wideouts because that gives the defense a headache, that’s a defensive nightmare that you can take two big tight ends that are athletic enough, though, to be in a 4-wide offense,” Helton said. “We have a couple of good-quality tight ends. I think you’ll see some of that. You know, last year, unfortunately, our best tight end, Josh Simon, got hurt first game of the season. So, we played with Joey Beljan … he did a great job for us but yeah, we’re always going to mix in personnel and do what we need to do to win.”
Using two tight-end personnel with air raid concepts is similar to that of the aforementioned Lincoln Riley.
According to a source with access to Sports Informations Solutions (SIS), Oklahoma ran 21 personnel 77 times on 469 dropbacks. While 21 personnel may not always mean 2 tight ends — there’s long been an argument on whether H-backs are considered to be running backs or tight ends — it’s clear that Riley isn’t afraid to use tight ends.
That much is evident when considering that three Oklahoma tight ends, including H-back Jeremiah Hall, finished the season with over 300 snaps.
“I give you a great example: Lincoln Riley, one of the best in the business. You watch him, I mean a third of the offense every week is he’s playing in 12 personnel,” Helton said. “I think of Lane Kiffin and what he’s doing at Ole Miss and he’s a great offensive mind but he’s still going to play time to time with a tight end. Maybe a little more 11, not 12, but he’s going to do that. There’s a time and a place for everything you just gotta know when to use it.”
Playing multiple — in this case with two tight ends — ultimately allows Helton and the offense to mix up their play calls while keeping defenses on their toes.
“I think it makes it easier on the quarterback, number one. When I say multiple, you gotta be able to play with a tight end, you gotta be able to go formation into the boundary, you gotta have motion to get safety rotation. All those things play into that to get what you want the defense to do, whether you’re running the ball or throwing the ball. So, really those are all the things that we look for that aren’t really air raid principles” Helton explained. [Air raid] would just be line up four wide, go fast, and let the quarterback have the keys to the Ferrari, and let’s go. We were fortunate last year to have Bailey, who’s so dang good, you could do that a lot but we played three games last year, we had to slow it down, and we got to look at the defense, see what they were giving us. We had to mix run, mix pass, mix play action, that’s what good football teams do and we’ll have to do it again this year.”
And while it’s possible that Western Kentucky’s offense changes with the departures of Bailey Zappe and Zach Kittley, it’s more likely that the offense remains similar in 2022.
“I think the base foundation always stays the same but you gotta put your best 11 players out on the field and do what they do best. I think what you’ll see from us, is, you know I’m a quarterback guy, so we’re always gonna throw it but we’re going to take our best 11 and say ‘okay, what do they do best?’ and if we have to be a little more balanced this year, then we’ll be a little more balanced this year,” Helton said. “But at the end of the day, you have to be able to do both but I think you’ll see from us, kind of more of what you saw last year we just gotta be ready when the defense presents itself. If they want to play drop 8, you gotta be able to run the football.”