The college football twitter-verse was recently set ablaze with this revelation:
Mike Leach plays a major role in my recent work…
…for his major impact on the college game and the Big 12 in particular waging asymmetrical warfare from his base in Lubbock.
He’s spent the last decade at Washington State going 55-47 and 36-36 in the Pac-12. His most successful season was in 2018 when he added transfer Gardner Minshew to a talented team and went 11-2. I went back and studied that team for a breakdown last offseason of their battle in the snow with rival Washington.
It was during that research that I discovered Mike Leach’s best Wazzu team was largely built around the check down. The no. 1 receiver for the 2018 Cougars was RB James Williams, who had 83 catches for 613 yards and four touchdowns. Their no. 4 receiver was his back-up Max Borghi, who had 53 catches for 374 yards and another four touchdowns. Minshew’s best attribute that season was making timely check downs to the backs in the flats where they could pick up yards after the catch.
Timely passes to the flats are perhaps the most underutilized dimension of the modern game. There’s a legendary Twitter troll who has a running gag in which he disses Tom Brady for the degree to which his stats tend to come from quick dump offs:
Barry doesn’t really appreciate Brady’s patience, precision, and consistency in consistently taking the quick passes out to the flats. It was those quick passes that allowed the Patriots to beat the Legion of Boom in Super Bowl XLIX. Brady went 37-50 at 6.6 ypa for four touchdowns, two interceptions, and one sack. His lead target was RB Shane Vereen with 11 catches for 64 yards, followed by Julian Edelman with nine for 109, then Rob Gronkowski with six for 68.
The Patriots won that game with endless flat routes, whip routes, hitches, and comebacks to the flats against the Seahawks’ Cover 3 schemes that were designed to make offenses when throwing those sorts of routes all the way down the field.
The assumption by defenses has always been that if you make offenses work their way down the field that way, eventually they’ll make a mistake and they won’t finish the drive or else they’ll bog down in the red zone. Well with patient old man Brady at the helm the Patriots made it work. Similarly, with Minshew and some legitimately talented pass-catching RBs, Leach’s Cougars made it work as well.
The Mississippi State job
Mississippi State would be a pretty great job if it wasn’t in the SEC West. In terms of pay, the recently fired Joe Moorhead was making $3 million annually over four years. In terms of talent, it’s a fairly unique job.
The state of Mississippi holds only 2.9 million people but from 2015 to 2019 it churned out a whopping 9.4 blue chip prospects per year. On top of that, Mississippi is home to most of the major JUCO programs in the southeast and is consequently loaded with tons of talented players across the South that couldn’t get into college out of high school due to grades or other issues. Then on top of that, Mississippi State has proven to be pretty lax on transfers, taking Montez Sweat after he went to the local JUCOs when Michigan State kicked him out.
From what I gather, it takes quite a bit to get kicked out of Michigan State, with Sweat it was allegedly weed and the theft of a bicycle. As far as we know he hasn’t had any problems since but Mississippi State has generally shown little compunction about taking some chances on transfers and JUCO players.
In particular, Mississippi State has tended to field teams that had really strong talent in the defensive front. The 2015 NFL draft included a DL and two LBs from Mississippi State, the 2019 draft featured three of their four DL (including Sweat). There is a fair number of big, powerful athletes that come out of the high schools and JUCO programs that Mississippi State is able to recruit.
Their recruiting classes are typically in the top 30 nationally and then amongst the bottom of the SEC. The 2020 class that’s already signed away for Mike Leach is typical, ranked 27th nationally and 10th in the SEC with 14 players from Mississippi and five blue chips included amongst 15 players who are signed and six more who are already enrolled. In terms of pure talent, Mississippi regularly recruits better than any program in the Big 12 save for Texas or Oklahoma.
Their best defenses have been ones that played more conservative, bend don’t break schemes while leaning on star DL to control the point of attack and inflict drive-killing plays. Their offenses have tended to need to be focused on physicality and the run game with the best units featuring guys like Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald going for around 200 rushing attempts.
Can you wage asymmetrical warfare from Starkville?
The better MSU teams have tended to be defined by great RBs, punishing TEs, and then OL stocked with upperclassmen that had good chemistry in whatever the preferred blocking scheme of the staff happened to be. With Dan Mullen it was zone, with Moorhead it was power-option.
With a few years of reps those OL should translate to the vertical pass protection sets favored by Leach, the real question will be how long it takes him to get a pipeline of QBs in there who can lead his attack and whether they can find skill talent that will scare SEC defenses.
The 2020 class he’s inheriting includes a QB by the name of Will Rogers (perfect name) who’s already enrolled and hails from within the state. He was a 3-star with competing offers from Troy, Tulane, Ole Miss….and Washington State.
His senior hudl starts with him hitting the post route on shallow cross and features him showing off some real arm talent while operating an Air Raid offense. You wouldn’t guess if you haven’t watched modern, southern HS football or JUCO ball but the Air Raid is plenty prominent. It’s the SEC that has had hangups about needing to play neanderball and winning in the trenches, the HS coaches have moved on.
With Lane Kiffin taking over at rival Ole Miss, LSU going with the Sean Payton pro-spread, and Alabama chucking it around more than ever this move made sense. If Mike Leach gets the time to develop the roster within his own system and can find a QB with the patience and precision to check down, there’s no reason that Mississippi State couldn’t have surprising success comparable to his Texas Tech or Washington State teams.