Leach is one of the most fascinating characters in recent college football history, and he’s been one of the most influential coaches in the modern passing game. That’s what tends to happen when your quarterbacks produce video game numbers practically every season. Leach was the offensive coordinator under Hal Mumme at Kentucky in 1997 and 1998, which is when the Air Raid offense arrived on the national radar. At the time, there hadn’t been any Wildcats drafted in the first round since running back George Adams in 1985. Twenty-six months after Leach and Mumme arrived in Lexington, Tim Couch was the first pick in the NFL draft.
Leach then spent a year as the offensive coordinator for the Oklahoma Sooners with Josh Heupel at quarterback. Heupel led the conference with 3,460 passing yards and 30 touchdowns, and also sported the highest completion percentage (62.0%) in the conference. Those were big numbers in a conference where only four players threw for even 1900 yards, and was enough to land Leach the head coaching job at Texas Tech after only a season in Norman. When Leach moved to Lubbock, Texas in 2000, the quarterback cupboard appeared bare. He took unheralded sophomore quarterback Kliff Kingsbury and shaped him into the player that led the NCAA in pass attempts in 2000, 2001, and 2002. Klingsbury led the Big 12 in passing yards in both 2000 and 2001, and then as a senior, became just the third player in college football history to pass for 5,000 yards in a season (after Ty Detmer and David Klingler). Klingsbury went on to have an unremarkable career in the NFL before excelling as an assistant coach with the Houston Cougars. He followed then-head coach Mike Sumlin to Texas A&M after the 2011 season, and after turning Johnny Manziel into a Heisman Trophy winner, Kingsbury is now the new head coach at his alma mater.
Replacing someone like Kingsbury probably seemed like a monumental task at the time. B.J. Symons, who sat on the bench for three years during the Kingsbury era, became a first-time starter for the Red Raiders in 2003. Symons would throw 719 passes in his only season as starting quarterback, but he made the most of those throws, accumulating an absurd 5,833 yards and 52 touchdowns. The passing yards smashed the NCAA record, while he finished just two touchdowns shy of Klingler’s single-season touchdown mark. Symons also did much of his damage after tearing his ACL in the season’s sixth game. The Red Raiders produced four receivers with at least 975 receiving yards, and Wes Welker led them with 97 catches.
The reins were then handed to another inexperienced senior, this time Sonny Cumbie. He threw for 4,742 yards, tops in college football that season. After he graduated, the next inexperienced senior — Cody Hodges — stepped up in 2005. While Hodges led the NCAA in completions and attempts, his 4,238 yards placed him second behind Hawaii’s Colt Brennan (but ahead of #3 Brady Quinn and #4 Matt Leinart).The Red Raiders then transitioned into their golden era as Graham Harrell stepped in in 2006. Harrell threw for an incredible 15,371 yards and 131 touchdowns (against just 34 interceptions) in three years as the Texas Tech quarterback. In 2007, his star receiver was Danny Amendola; in 2008 it was Michael Crabtree. Leach’s last year in Lubbock came in 2009, when Taylor Potts and Steven Sheffield shared time due to injuries. Still, Texas Tech finished 2nd in the NCAA in passing yards, behind a Houston team coached by Sumlin, Kingsbury… and Dana Holgorsen.1
Dana Holgorsen was on the same staff at Mumme and Leach at Division II Valdosta State from ’93 to ’95. In ’94, quarterback Chris Hatcher won the Harlon Hill Trophy, Division II’s version of the Heisman Trophy. Holgorsen was on Leach’s staff at Texas Tech from 2000 to 2007, before jumping to be Sumlin’s offensive coordinator at Houston beginning in ’08. That season, sophomore Case Keenum threw for 5,020 yards and 44 touchdowns, and joined Harrell as the only players to hit the 5,000-yard mark that season. In 2009, Harrell led all of college football with 5,671 yards and 44 touchdowns. Those two seasons were enough to get Holgorsen a promotion to the same position at a BCS school, Oklahoma State.
In 2010, Holgorsen inherited a very inexperienced 27-year-old quarterback named Brandon Weeden. The Cowboys finished the season 11-2 — setting a school record for wins — and scored 41 points in both of their losses. Oklahoma State finished in the top three in points, total offense, and passing yards. A resume that screamed “Mike Leach Part II” then landed Holgorsen the job as offensive coordinator and coach-in-waiting — and then six months later, as head coach — at West Virginia.
In Morgantown, Holgorsen inherited rising junior quarterback Geno Smith, who had showed promise in his first year as a starter. In 2010, Smith led the Big East (which may not be worth as much as the screen you’re reading this on) in completion percentage, passer rating and Adjusted Yards per Attempt, and finished second in passing yards and passing touchdowns behind Cincinnati’s Zach Collaros. Expectations were sky high for Smith’s junior and senior seasons with Holgorsen coming to West Virginia: Here is the conclusion from a great Dr. Saturday article on the Smith/Holgorsen marriage previewing the 2011 season:
With Holgorsen pulling the strings, even a mediocre passer would be in line for PlayStation-esque numbers on the strength of his coach’s reputation and sheer quantity alone. If Holgo could have handpicked any quarterback in the Big East for his system, though, Smith’s success as a first-year starter in a far less stat-friendly system still would have made him the obvious choice. With Tavon Austin‘s emergence as a legitimate big-play threat last November and the lo-fi nature of Big East offenses, in general, it’s almost impossible to imagine Smith not delivering the most prolific numbers in the league as long as he’s healthy.
If the yards and touchdowns are a given, though, it’s not as certain that Smith can deliver them with the same efficiency on display through most of last season, without a corresponding rise in the number of turnovers and other mistakes that threaten to undermine a rebuilding defense. Outside of the Syracuse game, aversion to disaster was one of Smith’s best traits; as an upperclassmen, those instincts should only be more sharpened. He may not be Pat White, but if Smith rides the learning curve into a comfort zone in the “Air Raid,” the final product on the scoreboard may begin to look a lot like the “Spread ‘n Shred” of a few years back, anyway.
Smith didn’t disappoint. In 2011, he led the Big East (which essentially meant beating out Ryan Nassib and the freshman version of Teddy Bridgewater) in completions, attempts, completion percentage, passing yards (by 1700!), yards per attempt, AY/A, passing touchdowns, and pass efficiency. Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin led the conference in receiving touchdowns and joined Mohamed Sanu in the top three in receptions and receiving yards. Among starting quarterbacks in the conference, Smith also tied for the fewest interceptions thrown, giving him an enormous lead in interception rate. And the Mountaineers landed in the Orange Bowl, where they proceeded to score 70 points. Smith finished fourth nationally in passing yards, behind only Landry Jones and former Holgorsen proteges Keenum and Weeden.
Last year, Smith had one of the all-time great starts to a season in college football history, culminating in a scorched-earth 45/51, 656 yard, 8 touchdown performance against Baylor. Smith cooled off considerably after his start, but he still finished in the top three in the country in both passing yards and completion percentage and led college football with 42 passing touchdowns. He threw only six interceptions last year, fulfilling his promise as both a deadly efficient and mistake-free quarterback.
So where does that leave us? The table below shows the passing numbers for Holgorsen and Leach quarterbacks dating back to 1997, with the caveat that sack data was only readily available back to 2005. The final three columns show each quarterback’s Adjusted Yards per Attempt, Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, and their percentage of their team’s total passing attempts that season.
|Geno Smith||West Virginia||2012||369||518||4205||42||6||19||126||9.22||8.66||96.6%|
|Geno Smith||West Virginia||2011||346||526||4385||31||7||26||195||8.92||8.14||97.2%|
|Brandon Weeden||Oklahoma State||2010||342||511||4277||34||13||8||93||8.56||8.24||96.1%|
|Taylor Potts||Texas Tech||2009||309||470||3440||22||13||15||170||7.01||6.44||70.5%|
|Graham Harrell||Texas Tech||2008||442||626||5111||45||9||14||118||8.96||8.58||94.6%|
|Graham Harrell||Texas Tech||2007||512||713||5705||48||14||16||126||8.46||8.11||93.6%|
|Graham Harrell||Texas Tech||2006||412||616||4555||38||11||19||135||7.82||7.38||94.2%|
|Cody Hodges||Texas Tech||2005||353||531||4238||31||12||34||270||8.13||7.16||90.5%|
|Sonny Cumbie||Texas Tech||2004||421||642||4742||32||18||7.12||0||98.6%|
|B.J. Symons||Texas Tech||2003||470||719||5833||52||22||8.18||0||92.7%|
|Kliff Kingsbury||Texas Tech||2002||479||712||5017||45||13||7.49||0||93%|
|Kliff Kingsbury||Texas Tech||2001||364||528||3502||25||9||6.81||0||93%|
|Kliff Kingsbury||Texas Tech||2000||361||584||3412||21||17||5.25||0||95.4%|
These numbers aren’t era-adjusted, and the passing environment is certainly friendlier now than it was even a few years ago — Kingsbury’s numbers were mind-blowing at the time. The statistics aren’t SOS-adjusted, either, and doing so would certainly drop Keenum’s numbers. But it does give you a taste for the type of quarterbacks the Leach/Holgorsen system has produced. And while all of these quarterbacks had success in college, NFL scouts viewed them very differently.
Perhaps not yet understanding the effects of having Mumme and Leach pull the strings, Tim Couch was the first overall pick in 1999. Kingsbury was the 201st pick in 2003 (6th round), while Symons waited until pick 248 in 2004 (7th round). It probably wasn’t a surprise that Cumbie, Hodges, and Potts went undrafted, but it raised a few college eyebrows when Graham Harrell and Case Keenum failed to be selected. Weeden, of course, was another first round pick. But outside of the Browns, no team has invested anything more than a 6th round pick on any Leach-Holgorsen quarterback. And none of them, Couch and Weeden included, have done much in the pros (although it’s not entirely fair to blame Couch for Cleveland’s struggles and it’s certainly not fair to write off Weeden just yet, even if the new Browns regime seems determined to do just that).
It would be lazy to conclude that just because other quarterbacks under Leach and Holgorsen have put up huge numbers in college and then done nothing in the pros that Geno Smith is destined for a similar fate. To the contrary, any “Leach/Holgorsen” discount factor is already included in scouts’ evaluations of Smith, which generally place him as a first round pick. Passing on a quarterback because he’s a “system” quarterback is fraught with its own peril. But it’s interesting to see how Smith’s production compares to that of his “predecessors.” The numbers produced by Kingsbury and Couch feel closer to the wishbone era than 2013, but Smith’s numbers don’t stand out as remarkably different from Harrell or Keenum (or Weeden).
Of course, Smith still ranked as my #2 passing quarterback from last season. The counter to that is so did Harrell in 2008 (behind Sam Bradford but ahead of Colt McCoy, Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow, and Matthew Stafford), and Case Keenum was the #1 quarterback in 2011 (ahead of Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Brandon Weeden, Matt Barkley, Smith, and Andrew Luck). Analyzing a college player’s pro prospects is a much more complicated process than looking at a player’s statistics, and that’s doubly true for quarterbacks. But it is worth keeping in mind that since Smith got to work with Austin and Bailey and under Holgorsen, putting up mind-blowing numbers should have been — and was — the expectation.
Come draft day, it’s not going to be a team that’s enamored with Smith’s fantastic numbers that drafts him. It won’t even be a team that is impressed by Smith’s combination of arm strength and accuracy, or a team that’s enamored with Smith’s intangibles or the fact that he’s a hard worker and a student of the game. In the end, the team that drafts him is the one comfortable with the explanation for what happened to Smith against Texas Tech, Kansas State, TCU, and Syracuse.
Finally, if you want to learn more about the specifics of the Air Raid offense, Leach, and Holgorsen, Chris Brown has written extensively about all three topics:
- Brown discussing Holgorsen’s offense for Grantland in September 2011
- Writing for his own site, Smart Football, Brown discussed the history of the Air Raid offense and Holgorsen’s version of the Air Raid last year.
- Back in 2009, Brown discussed how Mike Leach is able to consistently produce elite passing attacks.