Despite the similarities between two offensive systems that fall under the “spread” umbrella, life should still look different for the quarterbacks and running backs at Washington State making the transition from Mike Leach’s Air Raid to Nick Rolovich’s run-and-shoot.
For both, much of it boils down to the same concept: running the ball more.
Therefore, life should also look different along the offensive line, where three returning starters, a new center and a new right guard will be asked to forget much of what they learned under the old regime and adjust to new concepts and techniques.
“The offense is obviously a little different; we’re not passing 87 times a game this year,” junior right tackle Abraham Lucas said sarcastically after the second day of preseason camp. “It should be divided up pretty evenly, so pass opens up the run, runs open up the pass, which makes it a little more physical when you’re going at somebody and they’re coming at you.”
For fans watching the Cougars on television this year, the most discernible difference between the offensive line in Leach’s system versus Rolovich’s might be the splits, or space, between the tackles, guards and center. Leach’s Air Raid employed famously wide splits that left 3-6 feet between the left tackle and left guard, left guard and center, etc. The gaps, though still wider than those at most other schools, have shrunk considerably in the run-and-shoot.
“It depends on the type of play we are running; sometimes we’re narrow, and sometimes we are wide,” said Jarrett Kingston, a backup at right guard in 2019 who has taken reps at both guard spots this camp. “ … The last two years we would always have super-wide splits to give us space to pass block. It’s nice having shorter splits, because it allows us to do some good combos on run blocking.”
The average viewer might not be as proficient in spotting other offensive-line tendencies, though, and many won’t recognize the other major changes coming to the front five. This fall, the offensive line is adopting a “slide set,” which differs from the “vertical set” used almost exclusively in the Air Raid. The Cougars are contorting their bodies in different ways and moving their feet more at a 45-degree angle.
“One of the things is, we set a little more aggressively in the protection,” offensive-line coach Mark Weber said. “What we call the front side of the protection, it’s a little kind of a roll. We move the quarterback, it’s not just a straight dropback. So one side is more firm … our slide side is more firm than what they’ve done in the past. But that’s the biggest difference. The sets aren’t straight back, we’re a little more aggressive on a 45-degree angle and sometimes even more aggressive than that. Almost a run-block on the front side of the protection. So it takes really good feet and athleticism, and guys have got to keep their hips under them.
“It’s quite a change, but they’re doing a good job with it.”
It has been a positive change for the players — most of whom have NFL aspirations and could benefit from learning a variety of different protection methods before reaching the next level.
“I like it, it’s just another tool in my tool bag,” senior left guard Josh Watson said. “I can hard set, I can slide set, I can do whatever. So I just have a bigger toolbox basically. Helps me get the job done.”
While on the topic of positive changes, WSU’s offensive linemen generally seem to be thrilled about the idea of a more balanced offense, if Lucas’ earlier quote didn’t make it obvious. In Leach’s system, linemen rarely moved outside of a 5- or 10-yard bubble. With more run calls in the near future, they’ll have opportunities to split from the pocket and make key blocks downfield.
“I’ve been a pass-blocker for so long,” Watson said, “it’s good to finally hunker down and run the ball.”
It should also allow them to disprove a common myth about offensive linemen: the big guys can move.
“Run-game wise, all of us are just getting on the move a lot more and just being able to use our athleticism, which is nice for us,” center Brian Greene said. “So that’s been really fun for all of us.”