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How Dana Holgorsen’s air raid and Houston’s recruiting could make fireworks

Holgorsen goes to a city loaded with the kinds of players he needs for an offense he’s been honing for years.

University of Houston Introduces Dana Holgorsen Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

One of the major coaching coups of the offseason occurred when Houston pulled Dana Holgorsen from West Virginia, where he’d accumulated a 61-41 record with a pair of 10-win seasons. His Mountaineers rarely had the success they envisioned upon joining the Big 12. They never won the league, thanks partly to an 0-7 mark against Oklahoma.

But Houston offered up a rich deal and ideal situation for Holgorsen, who’d been the Cougars’ offensive coordinator before. Now he’s going to get yet another crack at the Sooners in Houston’s 2019 road opener. UH secured a spread guru who regularly generated some of the nation’s better offenses and occasionally paired them with strong defenses. By S&P+, he had six top-40 (and one top-10) offenses in eight years and three top-35 defenses.

The air raid is one thing. The Holgo Raid is a little different.

In 2007, Kevin Sumlin hired Holgorsen at Houston to bring the air raid from Mike Leach’s Texas Tech. After two prolific seasons, Mike Gundy poached Holgorsen to bring that system to Oklahoma State, where it unlocked the Brandon Weeden-Justin Blackmon connection.

Holgorsen made a name for himself with several distinctions and innovations. For starters, he emphasized the run game considerably more than Leach and featured a 1,000-yard rusher more often than not. His offenses included a lot of extra features to boost the run game. Holgo became known as the rare air raid coach who ran the ball.

Early on at Houston, Holgorsen would use sweeps and two-back formations to clear paths inside for his RBs.

At Oklahoma State, the two-back formations would incorporate true fullbacks, culminating in the diamond formation that put three RBs on the field at times, to create extra gaps and lots of confusion on standard zone plays.

At West Virginia, he started including the “Stitt sweep” from small-school air raider Bob Stitt. It’s the very short forward pass to a receiver in motion that’s since become popular at all levels of football.

It was at West Virginia where Holgorsen would also become an early adopter of RPOs (run/pass options), starting with the stick/draw play ...

... and expanding into the full gamut of the spread RPO world.

But Holgorsen always explored the wider world of options within the air raid structure he got from Leach. While his offenses would lean on the run game and benefit from mixing in play-action and RPOs, the three-day install of the air raid and its main passing concepts like Y-cross remained cornerstones.

Holgorsen’s tweaking of the air raid into a balanced, fully modern system was only a part of what made him a respected spread guru.

Another Holgorsen tweak was his year-to-year adjustment to build a spread-iso system that could feed the ball to his best players.

One of Holgorsen’s greatest adjustments was how he weaponized Tavon Austin at the end of 2012. Holgorsen fed the 5’8, 174-pound playmaker in a variety of ways before totally unleashing him in a zero-personnel formation, making him a running back.

Because of Austin’s hybrid skill set, it was almost impossible to match up with the Mountaineers’ offense in this package. The Sooners opted to flood the field with defensive backs in dime (or smaller) packages, only to be run over when the Mountaineers would spread them wide, creating space for Austin to run inside.

In later seasons with dual-threat QB Skyler Howard, the Mountaineers would mix in normal spread-option run plays and QB run RPOs, in which Howard would either throw a quick pass to the perimeter or be the featured runner on a downhill scheme like counter:

Holgorsen’s final offense at West Virginia was his best yet. With highly accurate and seasoned QB Will Grier, Holgorsen built an offense designed to command attention in the box with multiple RBs and big, blocking TE Trevon Wesco, combined with a trio of skilled receivers led by 6’4 David Sills.

Grier threw 33 touchdowns to Sills over two seasons (2017 and 2018) and the Mountaineers applied maximal stress on opposing defenses. They had a play-action game from their 11 personnel sets:

And would also mix in slot fades and switch routes to get Sills free down the field, where Grier would throw him open:

This version of the Holgo Raid was the closest yet to the veer-and-shoot that Art Briles made famous at Baylor and that Houston ran in 2018 with Briles’ son Kendal as OC. It blends downhill run schemes and a bruising TE with wide splits and regular vertical passing attempts down the field.

At Houston, Holgorsen should be able to recruit the kind of players out of high school that he often needed to get as transfers at WVU.

Holgorsen’s greatest struggle at West Virginia was finding savvy spread QBs. Joining the Big 12 didn’t do much for the Mountaineers in terms of expanding their recruiting territory into Texas, nor did it really need to, at least not at the non-QB positions. Morgantown is 1.5 hours from Pittsburgh, around four hours from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, and just four hours from the heart of Ohio. WVU has also regularly recruited Florida.

West Virginia maintained a steady pipeline of either large and powerful (Kevin White, David Sills) or insanely fast (Shelton Gibson, Tavon Austin) athletes from those areas.

But at QB, the Mountaineers constantly had to take in transfers. Holgorsen inherited Geno Smith, a four-star from South Florida who committed to run Rich Rodriguez’s zone-read offense. Then his main QBs were Florida State transfer Clint Trickett, California JUCO product Skyler Howard, and Florida transfer Grier. Before Holgorsen left for the Houston job, he had lined up a Miami transfer (Jack Allison) to be next.

Now at Houston, Holgorsen inherits a Texan QB who was one of the most explosive players in the country in 2018, D’Eriq King:

The Houston area regularly produces some of the best athletes in the nation. It is stocked with and surrounded by schools that churn out QBs highly skilled in the spread offense. The Cougars don’t typically get the first pick of the litter, so to speak (although they did get Ed Oliver), but they regularly feature exceptional playmakers and are also a transfer destination, just like Holgorsen’s West Virginia.

Holgorsen’s knack for building on his air raid roots and finding ways to get his playmakers into space made him a good investment for Houston.

And now it makes him a fascinating fixture in the competitive and explosive AAC, along with coaches like Mike Norvell at Memphis, former co-OC Sonny Dykes at SMU, and Josh Heupel at UCF. If it turns out having easy access to Texan recruits who have already gotten advanced placement credits in Spread Offense 101 was his missing ingredient, then we’ve truly not seen what Holgorsen is capable of producing.