clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

More than a mustache: Gardner Minshew, Mike Leach’s star import

Leach is known for plugging in air raid vets who immediately post big numbers. What if he gets the veteran from elsewhere, though?

NCAA Football: Washington State at Colorado Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The man who very well might finish as high as third in Heisman voting behind Tua Tagovailoa and Kyler Murray was nearly third on the Alabama depth chart behind Tagovailoa this season.

Gardner Minshew was a regarded enough grad transfer that Alabama had just about locked him up before Mike Leach gave him a phone call about the spot in Pullman.

The Tide had offered the East Carolina departee an eventual spot as a grad assistant, presumably looking for backup insurance in the event of Jalen Hurts transferring.

Leach offered him the chance to lead the nation in passing yardage. Minshew has done that, currently throwing for 48 more yards per game than anybody else and on pace for FBS’ first 5,000-yard season since Patrick Mahomes.

In a year when Leach’s Cougars were losing QB Luke Falk, three starting OL, two top wideouts, DC Alex Grinch, and defensive star Hercules Mata’afa, no one thought too much of Washington State’s chances. Indeed the Cougars were close to a total rebuild when Tennessee’s AD was trying to hire Leach.

Instead they patched in Minshew and are 9-1 with a good shot at a Pac-12 title and an outside shot at a playoff berth. The QB’s best known nationally for his look, which has included planting a Minshew-style mustache on Leach during a victory celebration ...

... but more importantly, Minshew might be the best passer Leach has coached in Pullman.

Back when Michael Lewis was writing features on Leach in the New York Times, the air raid co-founder had been rotating different 4,000-yard passers in every season at Texas Tech. After starting Kliff Kingsbury for three years, Leach plugged in four different QBs in four years, a parade of a fifth-year seniors in 2003 (B.J. Symons), 2004 (Sonny Cumbie), and 2005 (Cody Hodges) before another youngster in 2006 (Graham Harrell).

Crucially, starters regularly got redshirts and backup seasons before taking over. It was normal for a starting Leach QB to have taken literally thousands of practice reps in each air raid concept. They were finely tuned cogs in a machine.

Minshew didn’t arrive in Pullman until August, yet he’s executing the Leach air raid at a higher level than Falk did with three years of experience.

Part of the reason is that Minshew has the equivalent of nearly three years of starting experience within the system between his year at Northwest Community College and two years of sporadic duties at ECU. Minshew also spent the spring working with Hal Mumme, Leach’s fellow chief air raid innovator. Then there were the three years he spent as the starting QB for Brandon High School near Jackson, Mississippi.

And now Minshew could have the highest passer rating of any Leach QB since Harrell.

Minshew was always an accurate passer with great feel and tight mechanics for throwing the ball on time, as you can see from his JUCO highlights ...

... and he’s always had a knack for executing this style of offense, but simply didn’t have the platform to be well known around the country. But spending year after year in the system and concepts that Leach made into best practices for programs around the country gave him something close to a redshirt and thousands of practice reps.

Now that Minshew is at WSU, the Cougars are operating the air raid at a much higher level than expected in what has turned out to be a down year for the league.

Minshew has proved highly accurate in throwing to different parts of the field and quickly scanning through progressions.

The Cougs’ season opened against one of the best defenses on the schedule, the Wyoming Cowboys, and Minshew led a 41-19 road victory, throwing for 319 yards and three TDs with a single INT against constantly shifting looks.

On this pass, he beat the deep safety on a post route with perfect placement to Dezmon Patmon, a 6’4, 220-pound junior who’s emerged in a big way. First, Minshew eyes the deep safety and keeps him off the route, then he quickly sets and hits his big receiver in stride and outside the hash with time to collect the ball before the hit comes.

Minshew is also fantastic at getting the ball out quickly in Leach’s classic, fast-hitting schemes like mesh ...

... and shallow cross.

It’s hard to convert in the red zone in this style of offense unless the QB is precise with his timing and accuracy to hit the briefly open windows that can be found when bodies start to pack in tight.

Finally, he’s good at extending plays with his legs, when the finely tuned machine doesn’t create a clean look.

He doesn't show off his athleticism all that often, but enough to get the job done. He also allows the Cougars to use some zone-read that makes it easier to run the ball from four-receiver sets. When a really effective pocket passer adds any degree of mobility (and he’s 220 pounds), it’s generally the final piece to the puzzle for a spread offense.

When an air raid QB can distribute quickly and create opportunities even if you do cover all five receivers, things get truly dicey for defenses. That’s more or less why Mahomes is dominating the NFL.

It’s amazing that Leach was able to find a fitting talent of this caliber with this level of experience, all outside of his own program.