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Why Improving the Run is Still Important in Harrell’s Air Raid

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New West Virginia offense coordinator Graham Harrell’s air raid offense will still need an improvement in the run attack if the team wants to improve upon their season last year.

That sounds ridiculous, considering an air raid is known for being a high-scoring, high-passing offense. Well an air raid doesn’t mean they throw all the time, in fact Harrell ran the ball 398 times on 897 plays last year, a 44.3% run use, suggesting that he isn’t really a stereotypical air raid offensive coordinator.

Even Harrell himself offered a different description on what an air raid offense is when he was speaking at a spring press conference.

”I think the air raid is a philosophy to not try to do everything… It’s not necessarily we all look the same,” said Harrell. “Or we all run the same offense, but the philosophy is similar.”

And there is a major difference in the air raid run by Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach, who is the face of the system and had Harrell on his coaching staff from 2014-15 as an outside wide receiver’s coach.

Leach ran the ball just 266 times last year on 968 plays, good for a run usage of 27.5%. It’s clear that Harrell’s offense is a lot more balanced than Leach’s, despite both being an air raid attack.

So while everyone is focused on the quarterback position at West Virginia, the run game also needs significant improvement as well for Harrell’s offense to work properly.

Last year, the run game was abysmal for West Virginia. They averaged 123.2 yards per game, by far the lowest in the Big 12. Kansas was the next highest, and they averaged 139.5 yards per game.

Meanwhile the team’s passing attack, while fans like to blame the quarterback position for the problems last year, statistically finished fourth in the conference with a yards per game average of 247.9.

Generating more production from the rushing attack, even in an air raid offensive scheme, will lead to a more balanced offense this season.

Which leads to the question if the team can get better production from the run.

West Virginia lost their leading rusher from last season, Leddie Brown, to the NFL’s Los Angeles Chargers. Brown was a workhorse for the team, rushing for 1,065 total yards on 223 carries for a 4.8 yards per carry average and 13 touchdowns.

Replacing him will likely be Tony Mathis Jr., who is currently listed as the team’s starter. He ran for 312 yards last year on 72 attempts, a 4.3 yards per carry average.

The big factor though is improved play from the offensive line, which returns all five starters. Last season, the offensive line gave up 38 sacks for a total loss of 294 yards. That sack number was the worst in the Big 12, sixth highest among power-five schools and the 18th highest in the country.

Now that is pass protection, but that affects the run game too. Statistically in college it literally does because sacks are included as runs, but also from a logical standpoint. When losing yards due to a sack, a run becomes impossible to call.

And at the same time, a more established run game helps limit a pass rush as a defense now has to prepare for both.

West Virginia lost a lot of yards last year. That 294 number was fifth worst in college football, and that’s with their sack number being 18th worst.

The expectation is that the offensive line will improve due to the whole line returning. And that’s fair. Because even though the offensive line struggled mightily last season, experience is the best teacher for that positional group.

In fact, the offensive line is not only expected to improve but be a strength of this year’s team.

If West Virginia really wants to reach their full potential on offense though, the run game needs to improve as well.

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