The definition of Air Raid is "a raid by aircraft, especially for bombing a particular area". When Coach Mark Stoops hired former Wildcat Neal Brown, the fan base had visions of the next Tim Couch using the football as an aircraft to bomb the 100x53.3 yards rectangle area inside commonwealth stadium.
While Brown's offense was a tremendous upgrade from the appropriately named Joker days, it did not quite conjure up the same memories as when Hal Mumme roamed the sidelines. There are many reasons for this.
The first is that Mumme unveiled this offense at a time when nobody in the SEC had really seen anything like it; it took defenses a few years to adjust. Mumme caught a lot of people off guard and used his schemes to find the holes all over the field, it was a thing of beauty.
When Neal Brown came back to Lexington with the Air Raid, we did not see the same thing as we did in the late 90s. Part of it was due to the offense no longer being a surprise. One can also say we did not have the personnel to run it, I counter with the fact that the Air Raid is more dependent on the Xs and Os instead of the Jimmys and Joes.
After speaking on a podcast with Xs and Os guru Todd Greenwell, I learned that there is a lot more to the talent aspect of the Air Raid. I am not speaking to the overall level of talent on the offense, but the level of EXECUTION at key positions, formations, and schemes within the offense.
The Neal Brown version of the Air Raid is one that is potent, the version that Shannon Dawson is bringing is also potent, but using the right schemes to fit the personnel is where I think Brown's results fell a bit short of expectation.
I think Dawson's version of the offense is going to result in an exponential increase in efficiency, excitement, and results. There are some obvious reasons why this year's offense will be better than last season's.
Patrick Towles is a year older, a year stronger in the Erik Korem system, and most importantly a year smarter. Very few first year SEC quarterbacks dominate the league, almost all of them either struggle and learn, or they light it up for a few weeks only to see the league catch on pretty quick and bring them back down to earth. I think Towles experienced the latter of those two last year.
One of the more underrated reasons I feel Towles will have a big year is because of Drew Barker. Let us be honest for a minute, Towles had no competition last season, he was by far our best QB. Competition breeds excellence and having Barker hungry and pushing is a big deal for Towles this season.
Two words: "Boom" Williams, Boom is primed for a breakout season and having a speedy running back that can catch the ball in space and make people miss is going to do wonders for this offense. The ‘Cats also return veteran Jo Jo Kemp who has made it clear he is not laying down this offseason. They also have a slimmed down Mikel Horton who showed flashes of a strong inside the tackles SEC back last season.
The 2015 receiving corps is the strongest it has likely EVER been at UK. The ‘Cats have 7-8 pass catchers who can legitimately line up in the SEC and compete. Losing Javess Blue and Demarco Robinson's 1,000 yards of receiving will hurt.
However, a healthy Ryan Timmons, plus the maturation and progress of Garrett Johnson combined with the return of Alex Montgomery and Jeff Badet should more than make up for the loss.
Below is my opinion of who will end up being our best seven that rotate in and out the most.
The tight end position is also going to be a factor in an improved offense. C.J. Conrad becomes an instant upgrade at the position for the ‘Cats. The lack of production from that position has been a significant weakness in the passing game and I think having someone who will end up being a Jacob Tamme-esque tight end is a big deal.
THE BIG UGLIES
The Offensive Line for Kentucky struggled mightily last season. A lot of that struggle had to do with a lack of talent, but the lion's share of it came from lack of experience, cohesion, and depth. This season all three of those will be a moot issue.
The ‘Cats will have experience in Senior Jordan Swindle and Junior Jon Toth as the captains of the unit. They will have depth in freak true freshman George Asafo-Adjei, redshirt freshman Jervontius Stallings, Sophomore Cole Mosier, and Senior Zach West.
The cohesion will come from knowing where everyone fits instead of last season's hodgepodge. You will have Swindle and Toth anchoring the center and tackle spot. Ramsey Myers came on strong last season to put a stranglehold on the right guard position.
The left guard position is entrenched to talented Sophomore Nick Haynes or Senior Zach West. The only position that is not solidified would be right tackle, the only reason it is not entrenched is because early enrollee George Asafo-Adjei (AH-SAH-FO A-DAH-JAY) has been so good, he will not only not redshirt, but he is the backup for both Tackle positions and could easily be the starting right tackle sooner than later.
A DIFFERENT APPROACH
One of the biggest factors of the change from 2014 to 2015 is going to be the different approach to the Air Raid offense of Dawson vs. Brown. I want to turn it over to Todd Greenwell to take that a little further and go in depth on it.
Hal Mumme and Mike Leach did not invent the Air Raid but they were able to package it as it had not been done previously. Mumme often offers this statistic about his offense. In the first 100-plus years of NCAA football, only 10 players had passed for 10,000 yards and thrown for 100 touchdowns in their careers, since Mumme unleashed his Air Raid, 49 more have reached those marks.
The product and the way it is defended has evolved over time, but the direct Mumme disciples have remained remarkably true to the original package. Neal Brown played in the Air Raid under Mumme, but if he was to name a mentor, it would be Tony Franklin and Chris Hatcher. Both of those have put their distinct stamp on their version of the offense.
If we were to ask Shannon Dawson, I believe his biggest influence would be Hal Mumme and Dana Holgorsen. Dawson has coached with both during his career. What this means is I expect a more traditional Air Raid consisting of perimeter screens and downfield passing to maximize mismatches.
POST SNAP RHYTHM
To get the ball downfield the play must last longer. In studying a few of Dawson's previous stops at West Virginia and Millsap College, it is apparent there is an emphasis on extending the play. Last season under Neal Brown, Pat Towles seemed to be directed to take the first shot, and then release and get what yardage he could by running.
The post snap rhythm of the traditional Air Raid is much different. Look for the quarterback to slide over, and move up, to extend the throwing timeline and allow the receivers to win space while running in the open field. What this requires is a keen sense for feeling a rush, while keeping eyes downfield on the progressions.
Dawson has spoken about slowing down the quarterbacks. This is what he is referring to. If Neal Brown taught escaping like your hair is on fire, then Dawson is teaching them to let the fire burn around you until the last moment.
Another variant from Neal Brown to Shannon Dawson will be what is called the 'less is more' approach. Often times Coaches tend to get enamored with plays, and never really get good at executing anything. Under Neal Brown UK ran a numerous series of plays.
They ran run/pass options, they ran jet sweep play actions, and they ran quick hitters. Much of that is what I prefer to call the new age air raid that Art Briles and Robert Griffin III began to perfect. The quarterback is a run threat so the defense must account for him. Look for the UK quarterbacks under Shannon Dawson to appear more like what you see at Texas A&M. When you bring pressure, they throw quickly.
When the defense drops and tries to cover, the quarterback extends the timeline until a receiver is able to run away from his defender or to get into an uncovered zone. The offense will not install as many plays, but will be able to run all plays from multiple formations and personnel groupings. This will allow the coordinator to dictate to the defense and react accordingly.
I expect the offense to use the 4 vertical passing concept, and all the tags and adjustments more this season. I wrote this about the 4-verticals concept earlier. Because the offense will have a more experienced quarterback and seasoned receivers who will be able to adjust their route both pre and post snap , the four vertical passing concept makes for a difficult task for defenders to cover. When Shannon Dawson was hired I wrote this about what his playbook may look like.
The final way I believe this offense will differ, is the use of the inline and flexed out tight end to create mismatches in the run and the pass game. The use of the tight end to run in open space is a wonderful weapon if, and only if, your tight end is faster or craftier than then flat defender who is normally charged with defending him. By all accounts, UK has such a player on its roster this season in the aforementioned C.J. Conrad.
Below are a few cut ups of Shannon Dawson's Millsap's College team. Notice the pace of the play post snap is less hurried and more controlled.
The obvious factors of personnel and the development of key positions combined with the more sophisticated explanation Todd provided above should add up to a lot of fireworks in Lexington this season.
As the defense transitions from losing Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith, a potent offense will be a necessity if the ‘Cats want to get to the 6-7 win mark.
The Big Blue Nation has been yearning for an exciting offense for nearly two decades; I think this season the Air Raid Siren will get significant play.