The high-flying, high-powered Air Raid offense, hyped over a long, somber summer as the philosophical savior upon which USC’s hopes hinge this football season, took exactly three practices to install.
With a new system in place, USC coach Clay Helton understood this spring would be far different from the previous three.
He’d spoken at length with new offensive coordinator Graham Harrell about his plans to radically simplify the offense.
The architect of USC’s new scheme didn’t believe in a thick playbook; the copy given to players, consisting of no more than a few pages, could barely be described as a “book” at all.
The Trojans’ entire system, once cumbersome and complex, would be streamlined and stripped of any unnecessary verbiage or concepts.
But three days? Until he saw it for himself, Helton couldn’t believe a system could come together quite so quickly.
Before the first week finished, players who struggled to pick up past playbooks seemed to already grasp the new one.
So the staff installed the system again. And again. Then, twice more for good measure.
By the end of spring, USC had run through Harrell’s offense five different times, and with each new iteration, its offense appeared noticeably sharper.
That very sequence, as disciples of the Air Raid would tell you, is the entire point.
And as USC begins fall camp Friday and its coach enters a make-or-break fourth season as head coach, it could ultimately be Helton’s saving grace.
At the very least, this approach has already offered valuable insight as to how and why a young offense could collapse under the weight of its own inexperience.
“In years past, they were great systems,” Helton said, “but they were very intricate, detailed, and with a lot of verbiage.
“You’d leave that spring camp thinking, ‘Gosh, we’ve still got more work to do to be able to get where we need to go.’ I didn’t feel that this spring.”
Instead, he saw sophomore quarterback JT Daniels working more smoothly through his progressions. He noted the ease with which wideouts Michael Pittman Jr. and Amon-ra St. Brown flowed freely between outside and inside receiver positions.
“We’re playing carefree now,” Pittman said, “and that lets players make more plays.”
That was especially true for younger players, whose understanding of advanced concepts might have otherwise hindered them.
They were thinking less and acclimating more quickly, Helton found, and that distinction could carry significant weight as USC’s first season in the Air Raid wears on.
“I think that’s the way football has gone,” Helton said. “Players nowadays are more advanced, they’re more college-ready. The only thing holding them back is how complicated the system would be.”
That principle, as far as Mike Leach is concerned, is one of the core tenets of the offense he helped popularize through stints at Texas Tech, where he coached Harrell, and Washington State, where he now presides.
USC’s experience was hardly unique. Wherever the Air Raid went, Leach said, it never took long to integrate. It’s what happened after the system’s simple concepts were mastered that often set the most successful Air Raid teams apart.
“It’s one thing to know what somebody does on every play,” Leach said at Pac-12 media day, “but it’s another to react to it where it’s almost kind of a muscle memory thing, where you’ve done it over and over.
“Some of it’s not just this route or whatever, but it’s the idiosyncrasies of your receiver and your running back and just the timing of who’s where and when. The biggest thing is to rep it over and over.”
Which is how the Trojans found themselves learning the same system over again every few days this spring, hammering home the same concepts, practicing every possible iteration of the same plays.
Time once spent just combing through every page of the playbook was now focused on preparing for every possible situation that might actually arise on the field.
Whether that preparation will be enough to save a struggling offense is still very much an open question. The Air Raid won’t solve every issue that ailed USC’s offense last season when the Trojans went 5-7.
But in its simplicity, as Helton sees it, there is hope. He thinks back to last season’s narrow loss to Notre Dame, when the staff made its game plan as simple as possible and the offense responded in kind.
Daniels thrived with 349 yards. The results were obvious, even before the Air Raid was a reality.
Now, with a new system in tow and his job on the line, Helton is hoping the same principle applies.
“I’ve learned how simple college football could be,” Helton said. “We all have grand ideas and grand schemes. But it’s not what we know as coaches. It’s what our players know.”