Running Back Draft Stock Can Soar in Mike Leach's Air Raid Offense, Helps Prepare Players for NFL

Running backs have a chance to become incredibly versatile and adjust well to the NFL playing in the Air Raid offense.
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The Air Raid offense is largely based around the passing game -- a system we've seen several quarterbacks and wide receivers thrive in.

But what's not talked about as much is how well running backs can do within the scheme and how versatile it makes them -- something that carries a lot of importance at the NFL level.

In addition to being a solid runner, a running back becomes that much more valuable when he can also be an asset in the passing game.

Mississippi State rushers Dillon Johnson and Jo'quavious Marks are solidf examples of that. The pair landed on the Doak Walker Award preseason watch list, presented annually to the best running back in the nation. MSU was the only SEC program outside of Georgia (James Cook and Zamir White) to have two players on this year's watch list.

"I think it helps a lot because we do a lot of what they do on Sunday," Bulldogs head coach Mike Leach told me ahead of his SEC Media Days appearance. "The NFL has adopted more and more Air Raid concepts... What that does is puts the running back in space and kind of multiplies what he's able to do.

"You have to be a pretty dimensional guy. You obviously have to rush the ball, but you have to catch the ball and you have to block and protect."

The NFL has indeed been influenced heavily by the Air Raid and all-purpose backs are in high demand.

Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury runs the Air Raid in Arizona, and concepts like "92" (mesh), "6" (four verticals) and y-cross (has multiple different variations, but generally has the receiver out wide on the front side running vertically, the No. 2 to the front side running an outward-breaking route and the Y on the backside on a deep crossing route) are littered across the playbooks of NFL teams.

Several running backs have succeeded in the Air Raid, with duo of James Williams and Max Borghi at Washington State in the 2018 and 2019 seasons under Leach and running backs coach Eric Mele serving as a prime example.

In 2018, Williams led all FBS running backs in receptions with a total of 83, while Borghi had a plenty respectable amount with 53 catches. 

The following season, the sophomore Borghi was ranked third in the Pac-12 in total yards from scrimmage (1,414). Some 597 of those yards were gained in the passing game on 86 receptions -- also making for the second consecutive season that a running back coached by Leach and Mele led the FBS in catches made by a running back.

Could Johnson and Marks have this type of success? It's still early on, but the ceiling is high.

Leach had praise for how well Johnson and Marks are picking things up, and it seems to be only up from here considering how young the two are -- they were both just freshmen last year.

"Those are both good guys as far as doing it," Leach said. "They're both sharp guys, they're tough guys. They're young too, so we keep getting better there."

Last season, Marks led the Bulldogs in rushing yards and receptions, totaling 325 yards on the ground, with 60 receptions for 268 yards.

Johnson ended out the year with 225 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns with 36 receptions for 157 yards. He had two rushing touchdowns against Georgia, making him the first MSU freshman running back since 2013 to score multiple rushing touchdowns in a single game.

Though he was only on the roster for part of the season before he ultimately opted out, former Bulldogs running back Kylin Hill was also a player who was able to show a lot of what he could do outside of strictly ground plays when the Bulldogs upset LSU in the season opener.

Quarterback KJ Costello took notice as Hill recorded eight receptions for 158 yards and one touchdown in the air with seven carries for 34 yards.

“After Week 1, his second-round grade was skyrocketing because he was showing his catch ability,” Costello said.

The draft stock of players like Marks and Johnson will be something to watch this season as MSU opens the year against LA Tech in Davis Wade Stadium on Sept. 4.