How TCU's air raid switch could rewrite the narrative

Ronald Martinez

If the Frogs' offensive line can click, you might have to wait a while before you again hear that the program wasn't ready for the Big 12.

Have you heard the story about the football program that dominated in a smaller pond and transitioned up only to be totally beaten down by playing a big boy schedule?

After all, playing in the Mountain West, TCU went 12-1 in 2009 with a loss in a BCS game, finished 13-0 in 2010 with a Rose Bowl win, and 11-2 in 2011. And the Frogs then sunk to 7-6 and 4-8 when they began facing Big 12 opponents.

Sure, maybe TCU could win a big game against a Big Ten team now and again with a month to prepare, but they were a paper tiger feasting on docile prey in the MWC.

Like many popular myths, this one fails to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. For instance, if it were true that elevating the Frogs' level of competition would expose them, you wouldn't expect the vaunted 4-2-5 defense that defines the program to rank 18th in S&P in 2012 and 13th in 2013 or top 25 in raw yardage after joining arguably the nation's most potent offensive conference.

That TCU put up those defensive rankings with underclassmen-driven squads and enters 2014 with eight returning starters on defense strongly suggests that Gary Patterson is every bit the defensive coach in the Big 12 that he was in the MWC and Conference USA.

Where you find the drop-off that explains TCU's failure to compete for Big 12 crowns is on the offensive side of the ball. After a three-year stretch of top-15 finishes, TCU finished 64th in offensive S&P in 2012 and 93rd in 2013. It's hard to believe that joining the Big 12 would cause a team's offense to collapse while leaving its defense more or less intact. In fact, you might expect the exact opposite.

So what went wrong before the 2012 season that caused TCU's offensive production to go over a cliff?

One factor that stood out to Patterson was the departure of offensive coordinator Justin Fuente to become the head coach at Memphis following the 2011 season. Patterson fired his replacements after the 2013 debacle and brought aboard air raiders Doug Meacham and Sonny Cumbie.

Meacham was an assistant at Oklahoma State for eight seasons before captaining the Houston Cougars' attack in 2013. Big 12 fans might recall Cumbie as the second in a string of three consecutive fifth-year senior quarterbacks for the Mike Leach Texas Tech teams of the mid-2000s. After coming back as a grad assistant for Leach and then coaching the receivers at Tech under Tommy Tuberville, Cumbie was promoted by Kliff Kingsbury to co-OC and receivers coach.

One gets the sense from the TCU program that Patterson is very hands-off in regards to developing the offense, and therefore that the program is at the mercy of his ability to hire offensive coaches who can man the helm without much oversight. If Meacham and Cumbie can thrive under that level of autonomy, then perhaps TCU can shift its offensive focus and fix the problems that ruined its entrance into the Big 12.

The fall

Besides losing Fuente before 2012, the Frogs also lost their returning starter at quarterback, Casey Pachall, the week before major conference play began and had to convert athlete Trevone Boykin. In 2013, TCU's most effective receiver, Brandon Carter, disappeared as a major contributor, Pachall broke his arm and struggled to find a rhythm, and the run game never threatened anyone enough to make their offense go. TCU seemed snakebit.

TCU might have a chance to put makeshift quarterback Trevone Boykin back where he's most lethal. Kevin Jairaj, USA Today

Not least amongst the Frogs' problems were issues on the offensive line that prevented their run game from threatening opponents and creating easy chances for the passing game. After producing future NFL players like Marshall Newhouse, Jeff Olson, and Marcus Cannon while obliterating MWC defensive lines, TCU's run of great line play halted at the worst possible time.

Under Fuente and his successors who ran the same system, TCU was a spread team in the truest sense of the word. The Frogs' goal was to use spacing to attack wherever they had leverage advantages. They based out of four-receiver formations and threatened the middle of the field as early adopters of today's ubiquitous inverted veer.

This play hits the edge too quickly for defenses to rely on pursuit. And it punishes teams for attempting to take away the edge by firing a defensive end upfield, since it includes a quarterback option to keep the ball and follow a pulling guard up the middle for easy yardage.

Andy Dalton and Pachall ran the play well enough to make it work, while Boykin had the potential to do serious damage due to his athleticism. But opponents eventually caught on:

Here, Baylor's unblocked end slow plays the quarterback's read while a linebacker blitzes off the opposite edge without fear of being victimized by a quick pass. Despite featuring Boykin and a strong stable of running backs, TCU finished 109th in rushing S&P in 2013.

The line also really struggled to execute the Frog run game:

The Baylor line was regularly able to scheme and defeat the Frogs' zone and power run plays. TCU simply couldn't count on its linemen, particularly the guards, winning their individual battles.

The TCU passing game was geared around quick throws to the perimeter and deep shots, all taking advantage of defenders moving closer to the box to stop the run. When defenses didn't have to cheat to stop the run, the passing game's easy reads and throws became much more difficult. TCU simply didn't have good enough players on the perimeter to overcome.

A spread system cannot work if the offense relies on matchups that its players can't consistently win. The Frogs didn't have anything they did particularly well enough to form an identity.

Fixing the Frogs

The air raid coaching tree is coming to dominate the Texas football landscape. It's different than spread-to-run systems like TCU had previously with Dalton and Pachall. To successfully install today's air raid, there are three essential ingredients.

1. A distributor at quarterback

Within this school of spread offense, there's less focus on using the quarterback as a runner. Instead, the need is for a signal caller who can make quick reads and deliver the ball where it needs to go.

Even at Texas A&M with Johnny Manziel, the primary way that Kevin Sumlin and his staff took advantage of Johnny's legs was in calling deep passing plays and relying on Manziel's quickness to either buy time or scramble for yards. Zone and power read plays were not a big part of the Aggies' offense.

Instead, these air raid teams tend to make heavier usage of lightning tempo and packaged plays to create leverage advantages:

See how the center is working downfield when the A&M QB makes the throw to a Y-stick route by the inside receiver? Had the middle linebacker paid more attention to that receiver in coverage rather than keeping his eyes in the backfield to check for the draw running play, the quarterback would have handed off to the running back to follow that center's block.

Ystick-draw_medium

And if you saw the trips side safety [the "S" on the right] start to drop down, you'd see the offense work in other packaged concepts meant to create conflicts for the other side of the formation.

Making quick reads and throws based on the positioning of defenders is the name of the game. Offenses get there through up-tempo practices, endless repetitions in the same concepts, and a combination of spread formations and quick pace that prevents defenses from complicating the quarterback's reads.

Beyond the throw-or-hand-off reads, the QB needs to recognize when deep throws are there. And he has to connect on enough of them to keep the easy candy available. Otherwise, defenses will drop safeties down or bring heavy pressure.

This last detail is the most difficult for an air raid passing game to master: the ability to defeat man coverage, blitzes, or loaded fronts with well-timed and well-located deep passes.

You might notice we've embedded Texas A&M clips here rather than clips of Houston or Texas Tech quarterbacks. That's because the former Aggie signal caller in these clips, Matt Joeckel, is transferring to TCU for his final season of eligibility. At A&M, Joeckel already learned how to run this system with pace. If he wins the job, his ability to develop timing with the TCU receivers will determine the ceiling of the Frog passing game.

2. Rain-makers at the skill positions

Part of what makes the air raid so effective is that it easily adapts to incorporate different types of talent.

Your best player is a 6'5, 260-pound tight end who's an impossible cover in the passing game? Yeah, that works. You want to get one-on-one matchups outside for a 6'5, 225-pound receiver? Not a problem. Just trying to get a blazing fast but tiny player the ball in space? The air raid has an app for that as well.

There are three primary skill-position roles to fill in an air raid offense, and the body types or skills of the players filling those roles doesn't particularly matter. Those three roles are:

The guy who's a big play threat when he gets the ball in space on runs or screens.

The guy who's hard to match up with on quick routes.

And the guy who will beat you deep.

Really good players might fill multiple roles.

Adding Joeckel as a QB could give TCU another leg up here, in that it might allow the Frogs to move Boykin out to receiver more often (he had 26 catches for 204 yards last year), where he could be a big play threat and a quick-routes guy:

With 6'4 Ja'Juan Story and incoming freshman Emmanuel Porter, TCU has some options to throw deep to as well. Slot receiver Carter was another explosive weapon, but he's separated from the team and might not be back in the fall.

Running back B.J. Catalon could really stand to benefit from the scheme, as he could see his touches on classic scat back plays like draws and screens increase. He's a quick player who could thrive in the new system:


3. Offensive linemen that punish outnumbered fronts

Generally the most challenging part of overhauling an offensive system and roster is the offensive line. The air raid is flexible and rep-intensive enough that a team with a solid quarterback and any weapons on the roster can find ways to manufacture yardage, but good lines take time.

In general, if you want a sense of whether a new head coach or coordinator is going to have enough success in his first three years to earn three more, just take a look at what he has coming back on the line and what he's going to try and use it for.

Did the previous system recruit the right types of players for the new run scheme and techniques? Have they been coached in the preferred footwork, angles, and protections? If not, it might be years before the right players are aboard and coached up. Offensive linemen often need three years in a program before they have approached their potential.

In Fort Worth, the line might not be near as bad as you'd guess, based on the unit's poor performances in 2012 and 2013. The Frogs return two solid offensive tackles who split snaps at right tackle in 2013 as well as their center, Joey Hunt.

TCU utilized a drop step on their zone blocks, as opposed to a more lateral step. This is intended to get their hips aimed along their trajectory and set them up to plow paths through their zones:

With Meacham, this technique will remain consistent, and the Frogs might find they have better personnel to accomplish their aims. TCU particularly struggled at guard in 2013 and was often unable to either drive back defenders or handle penetration well. With this style of zone blocking, linemen need to be able to respond to quickness by resetting their feet and using their arms to seal defenders off, thus maintaining creases for the runner to exploit.

Potential new TCU starting QB Matt Joeckel comes with an air raid pedigree. Scott Halleran, Getty

This style requires quick feet and a large frame. TCU has a pair of guards who have been in the program for three years and might be ready to offer that: redshirt juniors Brady Foltz and Jamelle Naff, each listed at 6'4, 325 pounds.

Schematically, the benefit of the initial drop step comes in allowing the offense to disguise different intentions with the same initial footwork. With the offensive tackles in particular starting by stepping backwards, this play could be a normal pass play ...


... a packaged inside zone/quick pass concept ...


... or a draw play:


In each instance, if you are a defender looking to the offensive tackle to give you a "high hat, low hat" read to know if it's a run or pass [with an upright lineman or "high hat" indicating a pass], you aren't going to get a clear read in time to play fast. The extra instants make a huge difference for the offense.

With a quick and experienced center in Hunt, experienced tackles in Aviante Collins and Hal Vaitai, and these behemoth guards, it's possible the Frog run game might finally be a team strength again.

Early reports out of Fort Worth suggest that TCU has not yet mastered the tempo and quick reads of the new air raid system. But with a deep and healthier stable of running backs in the fall, an experienced transfer quarterback who knows the system, the potential ability to move explosive athlete Boykin out to receiver, and a legitimately talented offensive line, TCU just might gel into a dangerous offensive team before 2013 is over. And if not yet, then likely within the next few years.

In the event of an emergent TCU program that can pair a top 25 offense with a Gary Patterson defense, the Horned Frogs might just see their Mountain West domination translate to a power conference after all.

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