In order to understand West Virginia offensively, we need to first understand some basics about the Air Raid system. This is because the two men behind West Virginia’s offense, head coach Dana Holgorsen and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, have their coaching roots firmly established in this system. Holgorsen actually played at Iowa Wesleyan College in the early 90’s for Hal Mumme and (almost Tennessee head coach) Mike Leach, who are credited with developing the Air Raid offense at the collegiate level. Holgorsen went on to coach under Mumme and Leach at Valdosta State, and was also a part of the staff at Texas Tech when Leach took the Red Raiders job in 2000. Another coach on that Texas Tech staff during Leach’s time in Lubbock was Sonny Dykes, current head coach of SMU who previously held the head coaching position at Cal. Spavital served as Dykes’ offensive coordinator during the 2016 season at Cal prior to accepting the same position at West Virginia under Holgorsen.
This system of offense was originally designed to present both horizontal and vertical stretches to a defense with the passing game. The theory is that even the best zone coverage is unable to perfectly cover every receiver when the routes are perfectly spaced to stretch the entire field. The offense aims to involve all five eligible receivers equally and to distribute the ball to each receiver in open space. By doing so it creates for more efficient passing, and allows receivers to use their athleticism in space to make defenders miss tackles and rack up yards after catch. In the traditional Air Raid system the volume of formations and plays to memorize is minimal compared to other offenses, which means installation time is significantly reduced. The offense can run at faster, often no-huddle, tempos by not needing to sub in big changes in personnel groups to get into one of many formations. Less time spent installing translates to much more time practicing, refining, and perfecting their plays on the practice field. The precision with which these teams are able to operate is very difficult to replicate with a scout team offense, giving Air Raid teams an edge in preparation. With this as a background we can now examine West Virginia’s offense in greater detail.
To begin we’ll look at some common formations you can expect to see come Saturday.
What should immediately stand out in each formation is the spacing between the receivers before the play even starts. Regardless of the formation the receivers provide an initial horizontal stretch to the defense with their alignment. This is done both by even spacing between each other and by using almost the entire width of the field.
In addition, you should pay careful attention to the use of the H-Back in the first formation pictured. An H-Back is a hybrid player – one who can both line up on the line as a tight end or in the backfield as a fullback. The H-Back formation used by WVU is essentially a two-back personnel formation, and it was their favorite a season ago. The usage of two backs in the backfield is actually very traditional to the Air Raid, which was constructed initially as a two-back set. However, this deviates somewhat from the norm of the modern day Air Raid, which typically favors one-back sets. WVU will mix alignments, sometimes placing their H-Back and tailback on opposite sides of the quarterback while at other times stacking them behind each other on the same side of the quaterback.
WVU will use tight splits along their offensive line. “Splits” refers simply to the distance between each lineman in their stance. Although most teams with Air Raid principles have gone to tighter splits across the offensive line, Mike Leach continues to incorporate extremely large splits of around 3-feet.
This is obviously much wider than the West Virginia linemen in the formations seen previously. So why does Holgorsen use an H-Back so often as well as tighter splits with his offensive linemen? The reason is that even though West Virginia uses the Air Raid system they still want to be a physical, downhill running team.
In order to do this, the Mountaineers feature both gap scheme and zone scheme plays. Below is an example of each, beginning with a gap scheme. As the name implies, a gap scheme run is designed to attack a particular hole or gap. In the case below WVU is using a standard iso play to attack the weak-side A-gap (the gap between the center and guard).
With a zone running scheme the offense isn’t necessarily trying to attack one gap in particular. Essentially, the offense moves as a unit in one direction, and uses the defensive pursuit to create seams for the running back to cut through. The running back has keys to read, and will make his cut depending on what he reads from his specific keys. Below is an example of WVU’s zone running scheme.
The H-Back, tight offensive line splits, and WR spacing each work together to make this downhill style of running so effective. With the offensive line so close, but receivers spread so far apart, defenses are forced into difficult alignments. Offenses have an easier time determining a pre-snap read of the defense. In other words, the offense has less difficulty deciding which defenders will be playing the run compared to the pass. They are able to select the correct play to take advantage of where the offense has favorable numbers. WVU won’t try to run straight into the teeth of a defense, but will run when it is advantageous for them to do so. In addition, the offensive line has a much easier time establishing double teams — which is very often required on zone schemes — when they begin close together using tight splits. Finally, the H-Back serves as a very capable blocker who is able to lead block in any situation.
What you may notice from the running game, though, is that there is a relative lack of outside runs. This is because WVU uses the WR-Screen game as a substitute for the outside run — and their screen game is exceptionally dangerous.
Their most basic concept is the “Now” screen. Some may call this a “Quick Hitch.” This is utilized when the defense is using corners in soft/off-coverage. Will Grier will flip the ball out to whichever receiver has this coverage, getting the ball to him in space with room to create. Very often this simple play leads to solid gains, and occasionally the wide receiver will break a tackle for a big play. Below are two great examples of this concept used against Baylor and Kansas last season.
You can see that in both cases there is considerable space between the receiver and defensive back. This is an easy throw and catch between Grier and his receivers for decent gains. This concept can be easily packaged with any number of running plays as a run-pass option (RPO). Also, when running at a fast tempo defenses are not always able to adjust their coverages and personnel quickly. When WVU runs up to the line right away with their fast tempo they force the defense to get set in a hurry. Often the defense is unable to change personnel and sits in a very basic and safe alignment. This can then be taken advantage of with short, easy throws. Take note that both of these examples occur on first down. Look for WVU to utilize this concept, along with tempo and packaging it as an RPO, on first down against Tennessee to stay “on schedule” and set up manageable second downs.
In addition to the simple “Now” WVU also uses the basic bubble screen heavily, shown below from both 2 x 2 and 3 x 1 formations.
I said earlier that the WVU’s screen game is dangerous. Is there anything inherently dangerous about a bubble screen? Not really. But, here is what they will do with their screen game to make it so deadly. Once WVU has a defense tired and on it’s heels using their quick tempo, they will run a play that looks at the beginning almost identical to their screens, fake it, and take a shot down field.
I could go on forever with examples of these fake screens and deep shots. Defending this will require a lot of discipline from our defensive backs, a position that will be starting at least one true freshman.
So, is there anything Tennessee can do to at the very least slow down this potent offense? I have found that teams who defend WVU well do a few things in particular.
First, successful teams have constantly changed the alignment of their defensive backs pre-snap, regardless of the tempo that West Virginia is using. This is important because it prevents the Mountaineers from getting any pre-snap reads of soft coverage or obvious zone coverage, throwing the “Now” screen, and picking up easy yards to set up manageable second downs. Below are a couple examples of this strategy from the TCU game last season. TCU did this well for practically the entire game.
WVU just converted a first down on a Will Grier run, then immediately lined up in this formation. TCU aligns with their defensive backs only 5-yards off in coverage. Now, watch this clip below carefully. Grier will put his hand down, which signals to the center that he is ready for the snap. Right when the boundary corner sees this hand motion he flies up to a press alignment over the wide receiver. Any possibility of a “Now” screen on an easy throw to the boundary is now eliminated, and WVU has to run a play, which is covered well and results in a small, 2-yard scramble for Grier.
Below is an additional example. Again WVU gets set in their formation and again TCU aligns only about 5-yards from the ball with their defensive backs. TCU continues to watch Grier hand-signal for the snap, and when he does they make their move. The boundary corner again flies up into a press alignment, and this time the nickel player slides out over the two receiver side.
This late movement, again, takes away the option of throwing the screen. The Mountaineers are therefore forced to run the football. The Nickel defender is able to play both the bubble screen, or Grier had he chosen to pull the ball here. Instead Grier hands it off and it is essentially six WVU blockers on six TCU defenders. The horned frogs win on the line of scrimmage and stuff the play. It is great design by TCU, and part of the reason that the Horned Frogs were able to contain WVU’s offense to only 24 points on their way to a victory.
The second defensive tactic employed successfully against WVU last season was man coverage. This was the coverage used often by TCU, and is seen in both clips above. To illustrate the success of man coverage against WVU I want to look at a series from the Oklahoma State game. Starting on 2nd down and long Oklahoma State is sitting in man-free coverage. WVU runs a slot-fade, but the defensive back is able to stay stuck on David Sills. Grier’s pass is overthrown, and the pass is incomplete setting up 3rd and long.
On 3rd and Long the Cowboys get conservative. They drop eight into coverage and rush only three. Grier has a clean pocket to step up into and fires a pass on target into his sure-handed receiver Gary Jennings. The Mountaineers are able to convert this 3rd and long, and rush up to the line to run their next play.
Oklahoma State goes back to their man-free coverage on this 1st down play. Their defensive backs are again able to tightly cover the Mountaineer receivers down the field. Grier, under a little bit of pressure, forces a pass that is ultimately behind his receiver. The defensive back, able to be aggressive with free safety help over the top, manages to make a play on the ball for the interception.
I’m not arguing that the Vols should only play man coverage. This is still the division one level, and West Virginia has plenty of man-coverage beating plays (such as the Air Raid classic “Mesh” concept). A mix of man and zone coverages is required to keep the offense guessing. However, Coach Pruitt loves to play man coverage, and West Virginia certainly had much more difficulty against man defenses than zone defenses last season. This is one factor that Vols fans should be optimistic about heading into Saturday’s game. Man coverage ability is also likely why Alontae Taylor is expected to start as a true freshman. It will be extremely interesting to watch him compete against these WVU receivers.
One final method of slowing down West Virginia seems to be to use defensive line twists and stunts. This can be seen in the second TCU clip from above. Below are a few more great examples.
It will be imperative for Tennessee to do a much better job this season of generating pressure on the quarterback and stopping the run than they have recently. Many teams had success last year against WVU at doing these exact things by utilizing stunts and twists along the defensive front. I’ll be watching closely to see if Tennessee attempts to use this strategy against a West Virginia Team that returns many starters from last year’s squad.
Defensively West Virginia runs a system that is relatively uncommon in college football. It is referred to as the “3-3 Stack” or the “3-3-5” and it is all about balance and flexibility. The balance comes from the arrangement of the front six defenders in the base alignment. Linebackers are stacked directly behind defensive linemen rather than in the gaps between defensive linemen, as seen in more traditional fronts. Further, the defensive linemen are aligned usually directly over (i.e. head up on) the center and both offensive tackles. From an offensive perspective there is no obvious strong side, which can certainly create some confusion.
Three of West Virginia’s five defensive backs are considered safeties. They have a traditional free safety, as well as “Spur” and “Bandit” players, which serve as strong safeties to either side of the field. The Spur and Bandit players are usually considered “hybrid” in the sense that they are athletic enough to defend the pass while at the same time physical enough to fill in and defend the run.
Putting this all together gives the defense the appearance you see below.
Flexibility comes from the defense’s ability to easily move into multiple different fronts. Although an entire article could be written on this aspect of the defense alone I want to provide a few examples of the flexibility this defense provides. The first example comes from the Kansas State game last season. West Virginia walks the Bandit player up closer to the line, and drops the boundary corner off in coverage. They then slide their linebackers over. This results in an easy transition from a 3-3-5 to what is basically a 3-4 defense.
The second example of flexibility within the 3-3-5 involves almost all third down situations. Philosophically, West Virginia defensive coordinator Tony Gibson loves to bring blitz pressure on third downs. It doesn’t necessarily matter if they are expecting run or pass. If it’s third down the Mountaineers are going to be bringing pressure of some kind more often than not. Take a look at the two examples below of the defense in preparation for a blitz.
Linemen are moved out of their normal alignment, linebackers are in all kinds of gaps, and in some cases every player is standing in a two point stance across the line of scrimmage. The goal of all of these variable fronts is to disguise which players a blitzing. With only three down lineman the Mountaineers need to almost always bring at least a forth defender on any rush in order to have a chance to defend the run. With an alignment like this it is almost impossible to determine just by appearance which players are blitzing and which players are dropping into pass coverage.
So what are some things Tennessee can do to be successful against this strange look on Saturday?
Well, there are a few strategies Tennessee could use, and they all share a common theme - take advantage of West Virginia’s aggressive nature. From a personnel standpoint West Virginia has players at just about every defensive position that are generally small, but quick, agile, and aggressive. For example, the three projected starters for the Mountaineers at defensive line average only a hair over 278lbs (compared to Tennessee’s offensive line, which is expected to average around 305lbs). Tennessee should definitely be able to use their size along with West Virginia’s aggressive style to dominate the running game.
A great example of this comes from Oklahoma State’s first play against West Virginia last season. The Cowboys run a basic zone play toward the field. West Virginia slants this direction with their defensive line, and the linebackers flow extremely fast in this direction. The larger offensive line for Oklahoma State is simply able to seal off the defenders, and the running back makes the correct cutback to the weak-side. The only player left on this side of the field is the Bandit safety, who is on his heels and unable to prevent a big play.
Tennessee displayed a lot of similar zone scheme runs during their spring game, with the addition of multiple tight ends and full backs. I expect to see it a lot on Saturday, with all of Tennessee’s talented running backs getting touches.
The Vols can also have success by utilizing a running quarterback. This is one of the reasons that I believe Jarrett Guarantano is predicted to be the starter. Although Jarrett hasn’t displayed his running talent in regular season play he certainly looked capable as a runner during Tennessee’s spring game. Oklahoma found a great way to attack West Virginia by running the quarterback with a basic zone read, and Tennessee could easily incorporate this concept.
Again, WVU’s linebackers are too aggressive to defend the zone run and flow fast in this direction. Oklahoma’s offensive tackle takes an outside release to the strong safety, and in reality doesn’t make a great block. But, he does get in the way enough to be effective. When the quarterback pulls the ball, based on the read from the defensive end shuffling down it is off to the races.
There is one final area that I believe the Vols can exploit on Saturday. As stated earlier West Virginia loves to blitz on third downs. Often times they will play man coverage behind this blitz. They want to force the quarterback to get the ball out quickly and accurately. Tennessee’s wide receivers are exceptionally talented and in my opinion have the clear advantage in one-on-one situations. Whoever the Tennessee quarterback is in Charlotte he needs to remain calm with the blitz looks that he will see and take risks against the man coverage behind it. Accurate passes to the outside against man coverage, like the examples below, are plays that Callaway, Jennings, and Johnson are all capable of taking to the house.
If you’re new to the opponent breakdown I first of all want to thank you for reading. The goal of each breakdown article is to take the X’s and O’s of Tennessee football and present it in an easy to understand format. My hope is that it improves your watching experience on Saturday in some way. The typical schedule is as follows: opponent previews released Thursday prior to a game, and Tennessee game reviews typically released Monday following a Vols game. If you enjoy it and find it helpful, please spread the word and share – it goes a long way! Also, please feel free to follow me on Twitter at @Power_T_Tape for more content.
If you would like a more in-depth look at the origins of the Air Raid offense you might enjoy this article by Chris B. Brown.