Jun 09, 2023

Wisconsin Badgers Air Raid is the new kid in town, with its own twist

Wisconsin Badgers quarterback Tanner Mordecai makes a pass in April during spring practice at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. The Badgers' new offense is likely to rely heavily on Mordecai's arm.

As the story goes, Hal Mumme, the so-called “godfather’’ of football's Air Raid offense, was inspired after hearing an interview with Don Henley, a founding member of the rock band “The Eagles.’’

When Henley was asked to explain the success of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame group, he brought up the simplicity of letting gifted artists — Glenn Frey, Joe Walsh and others — rely on their natural skills.

It was the same principle that Mumme and his top assistant, Mike Leach, applied to developing their high-octane offensive system — the Air Raid — at Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State and Kentucky.

Spread ’em and shred ’em. It was quite the creative partnership between Mumme and Leach, who went on to coach his own programs at Texas Tech, Washington State and Mississippi State.

Wisconsin offensive coordinator Phil Longo was heavily influenced by Leach, who died last December. Longo was a prep coach when he spent a few days with Leach at Kentucky.

“At that point, I was still searching for what I wanted to do offensively,’’ Longo said. “I was really young then. I thought I knew everything, and I didn’t know anything.

“He (Leach) believed in allowing really good athletes their freedom to be really good athletes. It allowed skill guys to be skill guys. It kept the game simple and let them be really good at what they do.’’

After adopting that philosophy with his own personal tweaks, Longo stayed in touch with Leach and they traded ideas on a weekly basis. Leach affected Longo’s career more than anyone else.

They last spoke a week before Leach’s death from complications of a heart condition. Leach was 61.

“He was super excited that I was headed to Wisconsin,’’ said the 55-year-old Longo, who joined Luke Fickell’s staff in Madison after spending four seasons under Mack Brown at North Carolina.

“At the end of the day, the entire offense is based on taking what the defense gives us,’’ Longo continued. “That sounds like rhetoric. But that’s exactly what we do on every play, every day, all season.

“If a team loads the box (the area from tackle to tackle, five yards deep), we’re probably going to throw the ball for more yards. If they play coverage, we’re probably going to run the ball for more yards.

“The truth of the matter is, during the course of the game, they’re going to take away something from play to play and it’s our job to try and attack the grass whether we’re handing it off or throwing it.’’

The methodical Badgers have been undergoing a major transition to the up-tempo, no-huddle attack. But the players have embraced the nuances of the system. The Air Raid? Air Longo? What is it?

“It’s just our offense, it’s our scheme,’’ said senior wide receiver Chimere Dike, one of the team leaders. “I know a lot of fans are calling it the Air Raid … or even the Dairy Raid.’’

Wait, the Dairy Raid? On actually hearing someone refer to it that way, Dike smiled and said, “I thought it was a little creative tie-in with the Air Raid and with the Wisconsin dairy industry.’’

By any name, the offense works. Milk it. Or as Dike says, “The simplest way I could put it, coach Longo does a great job of putting the playmakers in space and he gives them the ability to make plays.’’

Dike was well aware of Longo’s link to Leach and the mark that Leach left on the game. And it goes beyond the dry erase board and maneuvering X’s and O’s. Leach was quirky, a genuine character.

“To be honest, what comes up first is his personality and the funny things he’d say on interviews,’’ Dike said. “Watching his teams and the style that they had was so different.

“I know coach Longo has modeled some of his offense after him and he has a lot of similarities with him, just in philosophy, in spreading the field horizontally and vertically.’’

Offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Phil Longo instructs wide receiver Chimere Dike during a University of Wisconsin spring practice inside Camp Randall Stadium.

UW starting quarterback Tanner Mordecai is very familiar with the Air Raid and Leach. He was introduced to the offense during his first three years of college football at the University of Oklahoma.

The Sooners' ex-head coach Lincoln Riley, now at USC, played in the Air Raid at Texas Tech where he was later a Leach assistant. Riley’s younger brother Garrett and Mordecai were together at SMU.

“It’s crazy but three of my offensive coordinators (the Rileys and Longo) had a special connection with Leach,’’ said Mordecai, who passed for over 7,000 yards at SMU the last two seasons combined.

“Hearing their experiences and different stories from all three has been awesome. I know there are a ton of guys who came out of his (Leach’s) coaching tree. He’s a legend with the Air Raid.’’

On how he would describe the offense, Mordecai said, “Dynamic. Versatile. Fast. It provides a lot of different looks for a defense that is challenging. We’re running different concepts that have answers.

“No matter what the defense is showing, the quarterback can find a completion to keep the ball moving forward. That’s what makes coach Longo so special.

“He has taken the best of both worlds — Leach and Lincoln Riley or whomever — and he makes it into his own. If you look at the Rileys, it’s similar offenses. They just go about it in different ways.’’

Badger backup quarterback Braedyn Locke was recruited to Mississippi State by Leach. Locke, a redshirt freshman, who has yet to take a snap in a college game, transferred to the UW in the offseason.

“Coach Leach was kind of the OG of the Air Raid and that was kind of our full identity,’’ said Locke, who like Mordecai is a Texan; Locke is from Rockwall and Mordecai from Waco.

“We were going to throw it 65 times (at Mississippi State). If we ran it more than five times in the first half, we were going to get a stern talking to in the locker room (from Leach).

“The difference here (under Longo) is mainly in our downhill gap scheme and the run games, the RPOs (run-pass options). Coach Leach never wanted to dabble in that.’’

Longo definitely plans to run the ball with tailbacks Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi.

“I thought it was very interesting, neither one of them said ‘Air Raid’ and then got concerned,’’ Longo said of their early orientation. “They both went and watched film. They both read up on it.

“They both listened to things that we were talking about when we were installing it, and I think they very quickly understood that the run game is as important as throwing the football.

“We don’t want to be one-dimensional. I’ve said this a thousand times. I don’t care if we run it 70 times or throw it 70 times. I just want to take what they’re giving us on defense.

“We’re going to run the ball, particularly when you’re trying to stop the passing game. Here and everywhere, you have to be able to do that to win a championship.’’

The Air Raid lends itself to Longo. And The Eagles. Life in the fast lane. Take it to the limit.

Mike Lucas is a freelance sports columnist for the Cap Times, where he previously spent 39 years as a sports journalist. He also had been a radio color commentator for UW football and men’s basketball since 1994 and wrote for and Varsity magazine.

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