Will Mississippi State's Air Raid attack work in SEC? 'We'll find out pretty quick'
When a coaching staff comes in with a new offensive system, it is sometimes difficult to get players to buy in. This can be extremely true for running backs and the Air Raid.
Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill found himself in that situation this offseason. Out went Joe Moorhead and in came Mike Leach, the man who loves nothing more than to throw the ball 60 times a game. So, when it came to sitting down with Hill, who rushed for 1,350 yards and 10 touchdowns last season and talking through the switch, how difficult was it for Bulldogs running back coach Eric Mele to get his star to buy him? Actually, it was pretty easy.
“It really wasn’t that difficult,” Mele told SDS. “Only thing is, you show them some numbers or the last several years, the touches, the yards, the touchdowns, all those things. Then just staying in conference, you watch a guy like Clyde Edwards-Helaire, comes out from LSU and he’s a high draft pick because he catches the ball. Everybody’s excited he caught 50 balls. I’m like, our second running back catches 50 balls, that type of thing.”
If there is an offense that knows how to use running backs in the passing game, it is Leach’s. In 2018 when the coach was at Washington State and led the Cougars to an 11-2 record, his top running back, James Williams, caught 83 passes for 613 yards and 4 touchdowns while Max Borghi, a true freshman, came down with 53 receptions for 374 yards and 4 scores. Last season, Borghi was even more productive with 86 catches for 597 yards and 5 touchdowns.
Mele sees in Hill the ability to be just as good. As a sophomore in 2018, the Columbus, Miss., product caught 22 passes for 4 touchdowns and 176 yards.
“He’s actually got plus hands for an offense that hasn’t thrown the ball to him as much,” he said. “We’ve actually put him out in the slot quite a bit, more than we had even in the past with our backs. Because he’s got a good feel. He really does. He runs pretty good routes, has a good feel, and he has good hands. So once you’re getting the ball out there downfield somewhere, I mean, he’s a mismatch problem.”
It’s not as if the Bulldogs will completely ignore the run, especially when you have a preseason first-team All-SEC type of player in the backfield. Despite only 127 attempts last season, Borghi ran for 817 yards and 11 touchdowns for Leach’s offense in Pullman. When the Air Raid offense is humming, defenses will be focused on where the next pass is going, making Hill’s job just a bit easier.
“He likes the part that he doesn’t have to run into 8-, 9-man boxes anymore, either,” Mele said. “I mean, he broke the most tackles, I think last year, on the ground. But now, we’re asking to break one tackle out in space, and then I then try and go get all of it if you can. So I think it was a pretty easy sell, and he’s trying to elevate his stuff and show that part of his game.”
If Hill does elevate his game, that is bad news for opponents. He will be a key cog of Leach’s offense that will try to throw SEC defenses for a loop. The mission starts Saturday against LSU.
“I see an advantage for us, particularly my position, is getting those guys out in space and making big old 230, 240-pound linebackers run,” Mele said. “Let’s get the D-line running around, too. Let’s throw a bunch of screens out to the perimeter, all that kind of stuff. I do think it’s not the easiest thing to prepare for us when you only have a week. It’s like playing the option team, kind of same thing.”
Game plans are flawless until you put them to the test in real games and for Hill and the new Bulldogs coaching staff, a tough opener awaits them in Baton Rouge. As Mele puts it, they won’t have to wait long to find out how their scheme works in the SEC.
“We’ll find out pretty quick.”