The Air Raid offense has produced prolific collegiate passers but few NFL success stories. The latest Mike Leach pupil, Luke Falk, has a chance to buck the trend
We’re halfway through the college football season, and when it comes to the draft-eligible quarterbacks there is no consensus to be found. Summer frontrunner Deshaun Watson has been inconsistent. Junior pocket passers Brad Kaaya and DeShone Kizer flash high ceilings, though one or both could return to school. Senior Chad Kelly remains polarizing for his play on the field and his actions off of it.
With the top-tier passers struggling to separate themselves, scouts are spending more time mining the rest of the pool of quarterbacks. And the next name for many evaluators is Luke Falk.
The Washington State quarterback is 6'4" and 203 pounds. He has completed 71.5 percent of his passes for 352.2 yards per game this season. After starting the year 0-2, the Cougars have rolled off four straight wins and emerged as a surprising Pac-12 contender. He is tough; look no further than a 42-16 win over then-No. 15 Stanford on the road. In the third quarter Falk’s jersey was smeared with grass and red logo stains. He lay on the ground after absorbing a massive hit while sliding (the defender was ejected for targeting). He sat out one play, and upon returning he scrambled for a first down on his first play back. Then capped the drive with 17-yard touchdown pass.
But there’s a familiar caveat with Falk. Yes, barring injury he’ll throw for 4,000 yards for a second straight season. But he’ll do it on about 50 pass attempts per game (last year he averaged 53.7, so far this season it’s 49.2). Falk plays for Mike Leach. He is an Air Raid quarterback.
The presumption is that an Air Raid quarterback’s production is simply a byproduct of the system. There have been former Air Raid quarterbacks drafted high who didn’t pan out: Tim Couch, Nick Foles, Kevin Kolb, Johnny Manziel, Geno Smith, Brandon Weeden. Case Keenum is arguably the most successful former Air Raid quarterback in the NFL right now, and on a micro level the argument could be boiled down to the top picks of 2016. The Eagles felt comfortable with Carson Wentz (pro-style offense at North Dakota State), so much so that he was under center in Week 1 despite transitioning from the FCS. The Rams say they need more time for Jared Goff (variation of Air Raid at Cal) to develop.
“I think the knock on the Air Raid is just a cop out,” Leach says. “If a guy who played in that system falls short, people use this as an excuse to their own convenience, saying what we’re doing is a trick or something different or whatever.”
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Leach, often regarded as the Air Raid’s godfather, says his system is derived from many wishbone principles: distributing the ball to all five skill-position players. Except his offense focuses on doing that through passing. The coach also emphasizes that the NFL has borrowed from his playbook.
“It’s indisputable that most of the NFL is copying us and doing Air Raid things,” Leach says. “The Patriots have total Air Raid influences, the Saints have total Air Raid influences, the Packers, the 49ers, to a lesser degree Seattle, the Broncos for sure. It’d be easier to say the ones who aren’t influenced by it.”
But the Air Raid alone isn’t the only reason some evaluators are skeptical of players like Falk. “Of course it’s great if a guy has big production, and you’re more likely to find that if they’re in an Air Raid system,” says an AFC personnel man. “My concerns with a guy from the Air Raid are the same as any guy who ran a spread offense. Only a fraction of the snaps they take are transferrable to the NFL.” The two biggest differences: commanding a huddle and taking snaps under center.
“No question when a guy is learning how to play under center, the footwork needs to be worked on,” says UMass coach Mark Whipple, who was the quarterbacks coach for the Steelers during Ben Roethlisberger’s rookie year and the Browns during Weeden’s first NFL season. “The verbiage is a challenge for rookies no matter where they come from. But for guys like [Weeden], you’re calling plays in the huddle you're making some checks, you might make some protection changes, and the game is different when you’re closer to the line of scrimmage.”
Weeden agrees. After winning the Fiesta Bowl with Oklahoma State in 2012, he returned to Arizona for three days of private tutoring with Marc Trestman, then known as a West Coast offense expert, to practice taking snaps under center as well as “play-action stuff” and “the huddling part of the game.”
“I found that going from a three- to a five-step drop out of the shotgun, that wasn’t a huge difference,” says Weeden, now a backup for the Texans. “Turning your back to the defense was more of a change, as well as sightlines.”
In his 2012 rookie season, Weeden led the NFL with 21 batted balls. “A lot of it was the three-step quick game,” he says. “Those defensive linemen were right in your face and you had to throw over them, whereas in college I didn’t have to worry about that because I was five yards deep. I could catch the snap, and I had a little bit of space there. So learning how to throw through windows [after lining up] under center was pretty challenging at times.”
“There’s a lot of throws these guys were making in college translate to the NFL,” Whipple says. “But it’s really what I call the hash game—the tight end throws on linebackers—that these guys have difficulty getting. The tight end throws in the middle of the field, where in the spread offense you may not be getting them as much. Then turning your back to the defense on play-action, that's something we spend a lot of time on with Brandon, kind of get your eyes on faster, reaffirming some of your pre-snap reads, and your decision making is a little different.”
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Whipple cautions against knocking a player’s college system in evaluations. “Everyone wants to think they know, but if they did, Tom Brady wouldn’t have gone in the sixth round or Dak Prescott wouldn’t have gone in the fourth round. I don’t care if you came from the Air Raid, the Wing T, whatever. I think there’s a million other factors that contribute to success of a quarterback than the numbers he put up in college.”
Which brings us back to Falk. Leach recites his quarterback’s intangibles to NFL evaluators who cycle through Pullman. Falk is a former walk-on who had his scholarship yanked by Florida State and received no other offers, in part because he moved as a junior and had to sit out due to transfer rules in Utah. The family briefly relocated to Los Angeles so Falk’s sisters could pursue careers in music, so Luke could attend the glitzy Oaks Christian High, and so his father could expand his commercial real estate business.
Leach says the Los Angeles lifestyle of “Hollywood High” was not for Falk, whose demeanor is unflappable. “I grew up in Wyoming,” Leach says. “And he reminds me a lot of farmers. Doesn’t get excited about anything. Kind of boring, but same guy every day.”
There’s the toughness factor: Leach cites his favorite road win of last year, when Falk led a 10-play, 90-yard touchdown drive to defeat Rutgers. Falk finished the game with 468 yards and four touchdowns. And he’s a student of football. “Watches film as much as if not more than any guy I’ve ever coached,” Leach says.
The coach has given his quarterback more leeway regarding checking at the line of scrimmage. Leach says Falk can check at any point on the field, and this season probably checks 35 to 40 percent of the time. Falk can take off with his feet and has, though Leach says “he’s not particularly fast, he just has quarterback speed.”
But an evaluator who has watched Falk says production aside, the one thing he has been impressed with is the quarterback’s accuracy. Yes, he throws a ton, but does so accurately and has a nice feel of both deep touch passes and short strikes. That’s something that pleases Leach.
“I get a kick out of guys who say he’s this big, he’s this strong, he’s this fast, all you need to do is work on is accuracy,” he says. “You’re not going to fix that [if somebody doesn’t have it], no matter what college system they came from.”
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PICK MY GUY
A current NFL player explains why his former collegiate teammate is destined for success as a pro. Here’s Browns quarterback Cody Kessler hyping his former go-to receiver at USC, junior wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster.
He looks like he could play anywhere on the field—safety, outside linebacker. He’s a big kid [6'2", 220] but also has top-end speed, which made him a threat pretty much in any situation. He was a go-to target my junior year, his freshman year, and he learned from Nelson Agholor and some other receivers, then that just continued the following season. When I was there, going in my junior year, it was his first year with Coach Sarkisian, and we got a new offense. We had a lot of concepts that were more pro-style, but we turned it into a college-style offense with a lot of no-huddle, and it really could be difficult if you overthink it. But JuJu is a guy who loves football, studied as much as he could, and I think that is why his transition from high school to college was faster than most guys. Whether he was running the deep post or the go, we tried to put him in situations for one-on-one matchups, and when he was in one, we always felt comfortable he’d come down with it. His speed was deceptive because of how big he is; you don’t think a guy his size can run that fast. The coolest thing about it is he’s nowhere near as good as he’s going to be, and he’s already really good.
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THE ANONYMOUS SCOUT
A few NFL evaluators introduce you to the players they’re keeping an eye on…
Takkarist McKinley, LB/DE, UCLA: Terrific speed off the edge. Perfect for a 3-4 linebacker in the NFL. Could be the next DeMarcus Ware. Freak athlete. Ran a 10.58 in the 100-meter.
Damore'ea Stringfellow, WR, Mississippi: Transfer from Washington after he was charged with assault and suspended. Filled in nicely for [Laquon] Treadwell as Chad Kelly’s primary target. Nice size. Physical receiver with deceptive speed.
Stacy Coley, WR, Miami: Adequate size (6'1", 195), ideal for the slot. Good speed at the top of his routes. Good hands, tracks the ball well over the shoulder.
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WHAT I’M WATCHING
Saturday unless noted, all times Eastern…
No. 6 Texas A&M at No. 1 Alabama (3:30 p.m.): A&M is coming off a bye and still opened as a 17-point underdog to top-ranked Alabama. That’s not a slight to the Aggies but a testament to the Crimson Tide’s dominance. What’s scary for the rest of the country: A&M is Alabama’s toughest test until season’s end. I like Kevin Sumlin’s squad to at least cover, for two reasons: A&M averages 532.8 yards a game. Also, the Aggies have forced 17 turnovers in six games, and one of Alabama’s few weaknesses is a propensity for giving up the ball.
TCU at No. 12 West Virginia (3:30 p.m.): The Mountaineers looked legit in a 48-17 win at Texas Tech last week. West Virginia is one of nine undefeated teams remaining in the Power 5 conferences; its defense has allowed just 19 points a game. While the Mountaineers may be the conference’s most surprising team in the season’s first half, the Horned Frogs are probably the most disappointing. TCU was on bye last week and are hoping injured center Austin Schlottmann and receiver KaVontae Turpin return to kick-start the second half of the year.
Washington State at Arizona State (10 p.m.): Check out out Luke Falk for yourself in this Pac 12 after-dark special, but also check out the Cougars’ resurgent rushing attack and formidable defense. Washington State has made a significant pivot since its 0-2 start and may just be the conference’s second-best team behind Washington. Before rolling off four straight wins, Mike Leach lambasted his squad for having the atmosphere of a junior college softball team, which yeah… I’ll just present without comment. The previously ranked Sun Devils played porously in a 40-16 loss to Colorado last week.
• THE NFL’S EASTERN ILLINOIS PIPELINE: Shanahan, Romo, Payton, Garoppolo. The small FCS program was the only alma mater with a starting quarterback, a head coach and a general manager in the NFL when the 2016 season opened
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FACTOID OF THE WEEK
The 2017 draft might be the year of the running back—Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffery, Dalvin Cook, Nick Chubb, Royce Freeman, Samaje Perine, Jalen Hurd. Yet the back who could finish the year as college football’s all-time rushing leader might be the odd man out.
Donnel Pumphrey of San Diego State is obliterating records. Last week he recorded his third 200-yard rushing game of 2016, putting him at 1,111 yards for the year and springing past LaDainian Tomlinson, Herschel Walker and Archie Griffin for eighth place on the NCAA FBS all-time rushing list. Pumphrey, a senior, has six games remaining and is 1,014 yards shy of Wisconsin back Ron Dayne’s career rushing record of 6,397 yards, which has stood for 17 years.
Pumphrey averages nearly 28 carries per game, including 38 in last week’s 220-yard, two-touchdown performance against Fresno State. And I love this stat courtesy of San Diego State:
As for the draft, Pumphrey has a future in the NFL. But his 5'9", 180-pound frame likely pushes him into Day 3 territory, especially in a very deep class.
• EVERYTHING LEONARD FOURNETTE DOES… EXCEPT RUN: You already know that Fournette is outstanding as a runner. But what else do scouts want to see from the star tailback? I asked, and then I spent a Saturday watching Fournette do everything else but run
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Former NFL GM and current Reese’s Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage highlights senior matchups he’ll be keeping an eye on this week.
Illinois DE Dawuane Smoot vs. Michigan OT Erik Magnuson: If the Fighting Illini have any chance of upsetting the third-ranked Wolverines, Smoot will need to be a huge disruption along the line of scrimmage. A three-year starter, he has 30 total tackles, eight tackles-for-loss and a sack through six games. Last year, the 6'3", 265-pound honorable mention All-Big Ten selection collected 15 TFLs and eight sacks. Magnuson (6'6", 305 pounds) is one of 16 seniors on our Reese’s Senior Bowl Watch List. As a three-and-a-half year starter at both guard and right tackle, his main task will be controlling Smoot’s gap penetration and pass rush.
Best of the Rest:
N.C. State CB Jack Tocho vs. Louisville WR Jamari Staples
Arkansas TE Jeremy Sprinkle vs. Auburn FS Rudy Ford
Ole Miss WR Quincy Adeboyejo vs. LSU CB Tre’Davious White
Texas A&M SS Justin Evans vs. Alabama TE O.J. Howard
Utah DE Hunter Dimick vs. UCLA OT Conor McDermott
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