By Billy Watkins
I like Mike Leach. How can you not?
He’s smart, funny, eccentric. His imaginary kinfolk are pirates. His press conferences have been known to go off dirt roads, across a pasture, through a thicket, down a gully and up the other side. Just stay with him, there is usually a lesson in there somewhere.
And he makes millions of dollars to coach football. Did I mention he’s smart?
His Air Raid offense is respected across America for its wide open passing game, yet Leach’s play sheet is not much larger than a Sticky Note. Not many 61-year-olds can read something that small without glasses. So he’s lucky, too.
But there is one thing about him that puzzles me: Why is he so hesitant to run the football?
In his two seasons at Mississippi State, his teams have rushed just 474 times, or 19.8 times per game. That’s the least amount in the SEC and among the least in the country.
He just signed a contract extension through 2025 after going 11-13 overall and 7-11 in the SEC. Athletic director John Cohen said he believes in Leach and that his teams usually show vast improvement in the third season. So the lack of running the ball doesn’t seem to be an issue with Leach’s boss, who knows sports.
And if you look at some of Leach’s better teams at other schools, you’ll see they didn’t run the ball a lot, either.
His 2018 Washington State squad, which was 11-2 and ranked 10th in the final Associated Press poll, finished next-to-last in the Pac-12 in rushing — 362 attempts (27.8 per game) for 1,560 yards. Yet the Cougars finished second in the Pac-12 in total offense.
Leach’s 2008 Texas Tech team also finished 11-2. It rushed 317 times (24,4) for 1,532 yards and had the second-best offense in the Big 12.
So, yes, Leach has been able to produce standout seasons without a huge commitment to the running game. But … he’s not coaching in the Big 12 or the Pac-12 anymore.
In the SEC, I still believe you have to run the football. Runs are like body blows in a boxing match. And don’t take my word for it. Check out what Alabama coach Nick Saban told the SEC Network crew Tuesday at the SEC Media Days in Atlanta.
“I think the offensive line is one of the challenges for us in terms of being able to run the ball more consistently and effectively, and to be able to protect the quarterback,” Saban said. “But I also think we have to do more things that don’t put as much pressure on the offensive line. We couldn’t run the ball very well s year ago. We had really good wideouts, a great quarterback and we became a passing team that dropped back a lot. And that puts the most pressure on the offensive line.”
Only Tennessee (44), LSU (38) and Alabama (42 in two more games than the others played) gave up more sacks last season than State (tied with Ole Miss at 34).
Junior quarterback Will Rogers of Brandon threw for 4,739 yards (third-best in the country), 36 touchdowns (seventh) and just nine interceptions in 683 attempts.
He put up those numbers with defenses knowing he was going to pass on just about every play, and he put them up while getting hit. A lot.
I thought it was odd that State didn’t name Rogers one of the three players to attend SEC Media Days. But Leach spoke highly of his QB on Tuesday.
“Will stepped in and had great leadership qualities, wasn’t afraid to talk to the locker room as a freshman, which I think is one of the more impressive, courageous things that he did,” Leach said. “It allowed him to excel early. It allowed him to focus in on playing because he didn’t have some of that stage fright that initial freshmen do. I think it allowed him to progress quicker.
“Also, I think it allowed the team to draw from him and kind of unify things. I think that was very impressive. I think Will’s going to get better and better. The better he synchronizes with the other offensive players, the better everybody is.
“Then sometimes I think it’s difficult to define what’s Will, what’s the receivers, what’s the running backs, what’s the O-line. But that’s the thing, football is a team game. Everybody together is the most important part of it.”
Rogers will have dependable targets in sophomore Jaden Walley, who caught 55 passes for 628 yards and six TDs, and senior Austin Williams (52 catches, 617 yards, 4 TDs a year ago).
But here is the bottom line: Even with Rogers’ outstanding numbers, the Bulldogs finished tied for ninth in the SEC in points per game (29.1).
Maybe a little more run-pass balance would make a difference. It seems worth a try.
More Leach notes from Media Days
*** Leach didn’t give an opening statement, which was questioned by one sports writer. Leach explained: “I hate opening statements. I really don’t see the point of it. So as opposed to me sit there and think of some flowery opening statement, which I’ve done before, and then at the end of the opening statement a number of people ask questions that have already been addressed in my opening statement, I decided we’d just sort of cut out the middleman. You go ahead and ask the questions, and I’ll go ahead and answer ‘em.”
*** A writer asked if it would hurt his offense, now that SEC teams had seen it the past two years.
“Football has always been a game of execution,” Leach said. “There’s not a lot of Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote, who you ambush, fool the other guy, then you walk away laughing like Muttley after the rock fell on the guy or something like that. It’s always been a game of execution. It doesn’t matter what you do schematically, you have to execute well.”
*** Leach was asked his thoughts on trick plays.
“Trick plays have a value of the opponent seeing ’em just from the standpoint now they have to adjust and they have to deal with something,” Leach said. “The other thing, their imagination of course could go wild on what else may be coming. So it does create a certain amount of psychological damage whether it works or not.”
“I mean, there’s all kinds of trick plays. I can think of all kinds of them. The rules have somewhat aggressively tried to prevent trick plays, which I don’t care for that approach.”
“I actually wish we still had drop kicks. I had the perfect guy to do it, too, at Washington State. Logan Tago (a defensive linemen). He would drop kick it about 50 yards out.”