HOOVER, Ala. — Mississippi State coach Mike Leach made his first live SEC media day appearance Wednesday and he didn’t disappoint.
The eccentric, outspoken, and often humorous, creator of the Air Raid offense, Leach forsook an opening address, inviting more time for questions. His answers ranged from thoughtful to progressive to humorous.
Leach’s potent and influential passing offense made an even bigger debut in last year’s abbreviated season, leaving LSU’s Tiger Stadium in smoking ruins. His graduate transfer quarterback KJ Costello threw for an SEC-record 623 yards in a 44-34 Mississippi State victory.
After Baton Rouge, the Air Raid fell out of the sky. The Bulldogs lost their next four games, scoring three offensive touchdowns combined on the way to a 4-7 season, which included a bowl victory against Tulsa.
Leach didn’t have a “smoking gun” answer as to why it happened that way, although LSU’s defensive shortcomings clearly played a large role. But he hinted Year 2 might provide a better accounting of his signature offense with their first spring practice.
“We had a short window and were a very young team,” Leach said. “I think that there's a reason that the NFL's adopting so many Air Raid concepts and that the last probably 10 Super Bowls there's been a super number of Air Raid concepts in all of them.
“It's an efficient way to move the football because you utilize personnel and the space provided. One way to improve is get older, rather than be one of the youngest teams in the BCS, I think the youngest. But I was very proud of the way they competed and improved as the season went on.”
Often with Leach it’s his defenses that can’t keep up but the Bulldogs were a respectable No. 5 in SEC total defense and No. 6 in scoring defense. The Air Raid offense has never relied much on a running game, but it has to get better than dead last nationally — that’s 127th out of 127 teams — at 43.9 yards per game.
There were other issues. The offense suffered 25 turnovers and the line allowed 34 sacks.
The offense will likely move forward with quarterback Will Rogers, who replaced Costello as starter in Game 4. Rogers passed for 1,976 yards with 11 touchdowns with seven interceptions as a true freshman. He’s going to get competition from Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham, but does have the head start.
“He's taken it over; he's got the guys bought in,” Bulldogs wide receiver Austin Williams said of Rogers. “He's a guy that's first there, last to leave. He's always watching film. He's just a grinder. Everybody loves that and respects that about him.
"We've been getting after it. I think having spring ball has been awesome for us to get more reps and get guys involved. To see him kind of continue to grow. I had a really good summer with him.”
Rogers’ inexperience forced him to rely on a lot of short completions. Williams and sophomore Jarden Walley, who broke the school record for receiving yardage by a freshman (718) are back to provide two reliable targets.
The running backs, Jo’quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson, were also freshmen and will have to provide a little more rushing support. They combined for 556 yards rushing and 96 receptions.
Leach acknowledged Rogers’ leadership, his ability to elevate the team and that he looked more experienced than he was. But he also said the position is more experienced. Abraham has the most experience with Sawyer Robertson and Daniel Greek behind Rogers, but Leach doesn't want to spend another season bouncing between two or more quarterbacks.
“It will be very competitive, and the biggest challenge is going to be sorting out how to deal the reps because you don't have enough reps to consistently rep four quarterbacks,” Leach said. “I doubt we'll play two quarterbacks because that's not just an adjustment to the quarterbacks, it's an adjustment to the team and the players around them.”