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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

How Mike Leach keeps producing prolific passers

Dr Saturday recently observed that

[o]f the five starters Leach has trotted out in nine years, every one has topped 4,000 yards and 30 touchdowns in a season; even in terms of efficiency as opposed to straight cumulative totals, they've been remarkably consistent from year to year.

He also notes that it's unlikely that Texas Tech will quite reach the heights they did last year, and that "[u]nless the stars align for the new kids in some unforeseen, improbably way, even 4,200 yards and 35 touchdowns could feel like the first hints of stagnation in the success story." Quite likely. But how has Leach continued to produce such wildly successful (in terms of stats, at least) quarterback?

One answer is "the system," but let's get more specific. The Captain has frequently noted that his system is all stuff that's been done before. Indeed, what is remarkable is that guys can seem to leap off the bench and do nothing but throw completions. He had one of the great three-year runs, where, defying the common spread/passing offense wisdom of playing your younger guy so they can get some experience, he rode three fifth-year senior quarterbacks to great heights (and, again, stats).

My explanation, and I think Leach would agree with me, is how the Red Raiders practice. One, they obviously do not run the ball much so all the focus is on throwing and catching, every day. Leach also does not believe in traditional stretching; rather he begins practices with medium speed drills that work on techniques like settling in the windows between zones and dropping back and throwing. Everything is focused on throwing the ball. Bob Davie visited Texas Tech a few years ago, and was blown away by what he saw:

Last year, Tech averaged 60 passes a game so it is obviously not a balanced attack, but this actually works in their favor. In practice, they spend virtually all their time focusing on fundamentals related to the passing game. From the time they hit the practice field until they leave, the ball is in the air and the emphasis in on throwing, catching and protecting the quarterback.

It takes great confidence in your scheme to be able to take this approach, but the players appreciate it because they can focus on execution.

Practice -- What's Different

When you watch Texas Tech practice, it doesn't seem as structured as most college practices. They do not stretch as a team and unlike most practices, there is not a horn blowing every five minutes to change drills. The bottom line is that the cosmetic appearance of practice is not as important to Leach as it is to some coaches.

Although not as structured, it is impressive to watch Texas Tech practice and you quickly see why it is so successful. The ball is always in the air and what the Red Raiders practice is what you see them do in a game. They work on every phase of their package every day and in most passing drills, there are four quarterbacks throwing and every eligible receiver catching on each snap.

There is great detail given to fundamentals in all phases of the passing game. Wide receivers, for example, work every day on releases versus different coverages, ball security, scrambling drills, blocking and routes versus specific coverages.

Davie is referencing some of the specific "Airraid" passing drills -- the real secret to the scheme's success. The main drills are:

  • Settle-noose: This is basically a warm-up drill. The receivers begin out quarter speed and shuffle between two cones, "settling" nearer to one than the other, as if they were two zone defenders. The quarterback takes a drop -- again, reduced speed -- and throws the ball, aiming for the receiver but away from the nearer "defender." The receiver uses good catching form and bursts upfield after making the catch. You can see how this simple drill sets up the entire theory of their offense, which relies on finding seams in the zones and quarterbacks throwing between defenders. Check out the video below, courtesy of Brophy:

  • Pat-n-go: This is another simple drill. Most teams use a form of "route lines," or quarterbacks dropping and receivers running routes on "air" -- i.e. with no defenders. The one clever insight here is that one group of QBs and receivers lines up on opposite from another. This way they can complete a pass, have the receiver burst as if scoring, and simply get in line on the opposite side of the field, rather than have to run back through. Just another way they get more repetitions.
  • Routes on air: Probably their best drill. The coaches line up garbage cans or bags or whathaveyou where defenders would drop for a zone. Then all five receivers and/or runningbacks line up, and they call a play. Five quarterbacks (or four and a manager, etc) each drop back and throw the ball to a receiver. Here's the deal: if you're the QB who should throw it to the first read, you drop back and throw it to him. If you are assigned to the third read, well you drop back, look at #1, then #2, then #3 and throw it to him. Same goes for #2, #4, and even #5. Moreover, every receiver who runs the route catches a ball and practices scoring. Then the quarterbacks rotate over -- i.e. if you threw it to #2 now you throw it to #3, etc -- and a new group of receivers steps in. This way quarterbacks absolutely learn all their reads and practice it every day (how many reps like this does the third or fourth string guy at another school get?), and they also practice throwing it to all their receivers. Each time they do this
  • 7-on-7 and man-to-man: These are what they sound like, and most do these drills. One-on-one or man-to-man involves the receivers going against press man in practice, while 7-on-7 is like a real scrimmage, minus the linemen.
Good drills, no? As the Airraid practice plan shows, they do these drills almost every day. As Davie summed up:
Tech gets an amazing amount of repetitions in practice and most importantly, it doesn't waste reps practicing things they don't do in a game.
Indeed, if you're third-string quarterback at Texas Tech, I can't imagine a program whose third-stringer gets more reps than you. Same goes for second-string, third-string, etc. Now, games are certainly different -- Tech's defense has never been confused with Texas's or Oklahoma's -- but these drills, coupled with their total commitment to throwing the ball, is a big factor in Leach's ability to churn out successful quarterbacks.


Brad said...


Obviously TT can put up the points and yards with just about anybody behind center, but as you mention defense is thier big question mark.

What type of defense would you pair with the TT offense. Obviously their team is giong to see a bunch of passes in practice so would you gear your scheme more to stopping the run because your guys are likely to get less practice in that area so you should commit extra bodies to the run game.

I know BYU's coach has spoken about the defense they run with thier Air Raid offense and it is essentially a bend don't break defense that has the goal of holding teams to less than 24 pts. If they can get there they are pretty confident that they can consitently score more than 24 pts.

Another interesting note. I took a look at the stats and Tech is not all that bad on defense.

This is their Big 12 ranking in defensive yds per play

2004 4T
2005 5
2006 3
2007 2
2008 6

They give up a bunch of yards but that is more a pacing issue, they are consistently in the top half of the Big 12 in yds/play

Stan said...

If I were Texas Tech, I would focus on recruiting great pass rushers and great cover DBs with the argument that the NFL is all about the pass and TT will give you more practice time covering (or working on pass rush) than any other program in the country.

And if your defensive athletes can do that, you can run any defense you want.

Greg said...

Most try to explain Leach's offense and approach without understanding. You understand and explain. Thanks.

brophy said...

It is good to point out their process behind the AR system and how that plays into the infamously minimalistic Leach playsheets.
In addition, the complete paradigm shift in their attitude/philosophy of advancing the ball.
Where most people are thinking of a ground-up approach (run game, run game....oh, yeah, let's throw it), the AR is completely backward on that, looking to pass and tempo a defense until there is no more time remaining in the game
They open up how they end the game
Take last year's clutch catch against Texas....just a routine play.
The year before they had that 35 point comeback in the 2nd half

It looks amazing and puts up crazy numbers, but their approach is not much different than the sick yardage put up by run heavy teams, with the exception being that any mope could probably run through empty spaces created by a horizontally stretched field with 3 ft splits.

Another facet is the amount of screens they run (that count as pass yardage) and that they are just looking for grass/space to throw to, rather than 'the open receiver'

Yrro said...

Sounds like good drills. Why couldn't/don't everyone else steal the drills even if they aren't practicing passing quite as often?

Lanny Nugen said...

Reading football articles from you is as enjoyable as reading philosophy from Karl Popper and probability from Nassim Taleb. I always treasure the moment while it lasts.

Richard said...

In addtion to being both non-traditional and experimental as you so aptly observe, Leach seems to have a knack for choosing what works. Read the following in the context of his "no stretching" practices:

Mr.Murder said...

Reps create timing and chemistry.

You might need to talk with a pitching coach about what to do in terms of physical rigor.

The only issue might be finding enough arms to throw, icing down the closer, etc.