At its core, the air-raid offense is a philosophy—not a playbook—that stretches defenses out across the width of the field and emphasizes the importance of passing. Though different variations of the air-raid exist, the goals of air-raid offenses are similar: keep the plays simple, spread defenses out, pass often and efficiently move the ball downfield.
“I’ve told a lot of people that I think the air-raid is much more of a philosophy than true Xs and Os,” USC offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said. “It gives you an identity. It’s basically, limit what you do, get really good at what you do and execute at a high level.”
While many variations of the air raid exist, USC favors a version that emphasizes the passing game while still running the ball frequently. In 2019 USC passed the ball on 56% of plays and gained 73% of its yards on passing plays.
Harrell, a former quarterback for Texas Tech, first learned the air-raid philosophy from Washington State’s current coach and pirate-aficionado Mike Leach. By embracing air-raid philosophies while running the ball regularly, Coach Harrell has deviated from Leach’s example of passing the ball almost exclusively.
“I tell everyone that there’s only one person that really runs the air-raid, and that’s Mike Leach,” Graham said. “Obviously, playing for him, and then my first coaching job being under him, his fingerprints will be all over it.”
In 2019 Leach’s Washington State Cougars passed the ball on 76.8% of plays, gaining 86% of their total yardage over the air. The Cougars also lead the Pac-12 with an average of 516.8 total yards per game and 444.3 passing yards per game. USC is second in the Pac-12 with 335.9 passing yards per game.
One of the hallmarks of the air-raid offense is the ability to distribute passing attempts among multiple receivers. Receivers Michael Pittman Jr., Amon-Ra St. Brown, Tyler Vaughns, and Drake London accounted for 86.6% of receiving yards in 2019.
Pittman Jr. led that group with 1222 yards, while St. Brown and Vaughns accrued 879 yards and 858 yards respectively. Freshman Drake London also proved to be a valuable asset for the Trojans, averaging a team-high 15.2 yards per reception among receivers with more than twenty receptions.
USC’s many talented receivers gave freshman quarterback Kedon Slovis plenty of options and made it difficult for defenses to target any one specific player. This was seen most clearly against UCLA when USC had four receivers clear 100 passing yards for the first time in program history. This spread offense helped Slovis throw for a single-game record 515 yards.
The receivers understand the importance of their role in Graham’s offensive scheme, and they are happy to share the spotlight with one another.
“I walked in expecting to deal with a whole bunch of egos and problems like that, and I walked into a place where the skill guys were just as selfless as I have ever seen,” Graham said after first accepting the OC position in April. “They’re not only just extremely talented guys, but they are team guys. They play hard, and because of that they give you a chance to be really successful.”
The Trojans finished 8-4 overall and closed out the regular season on a three-game winning streak.