The Mike Leach System
An In-Depth Look into Mike Leach’s System and Why His Offensive Simplicity Always Triggers Success.
Researchers Note: X&O Labs was granted exclusive access to Mike Leach. We conducted three in-depth interviews with Coach Leach over a two week period in 2011. The following interview is part 1 of a 3-part series that will be featured exclusively on www.XandOLabs.com.
Part 1: Designing Leach’s Offense – Perception vs. Reality For over a decade, Mike Leach has been known as one of the brightest and most productive offensive minds in college football. His Texas Tech teams have consistently ranked in the top ten in scoring offense year after year, while producing top level at the skill positions. X&O Labs was granted an exclusive interview with Leach, who has just released his new book, Swing Your Sword: Leading the Charge in Football and Life. It will only be a matter of time before Leach is granted a return to the sidelines and an opportunity to take a new program to the heights he has with the Red Raiders.
In this week’s installment, X&O Labs’ Senior Research Manager, Mike Kuchar, sat down with Leach to talk about what makes his offense so successful and why it is so difficult to defend. He talks about how the perception of his offense being complicated is much different than the reality of its scheme. Coach Leach also reveals details of how verbiage is more important than schemes, how being comfortable in the system breeds success and when the empty package could be a waste of your time.
Mike Kuchar: You’ve always been known as a coach that seems complex but keeps its relatively simple for your kids to understand. Would you agree with that statement?
Mike Leach: We definitely worked hard to keep it simple. Anything you do that restricts a player’s ability to quickly pull the trigger is counterproductive. You can be the smartest guy in the world and make it so intricate that a player is slow to pull the trigger and that’s when you hurt yourself. Sometimes the smartest minds in football create hesitation and you hurt yourself. People who hesitate are slow. A 4.5 guy could become a 4.7 guy if he hesitates. But at the same time, as you do things offensively that can cause the defense to hesitate, that will effectively speed your offense up without complicating things for your own players.
Kuchar: Tell us how you consistently made it simple. Are there a set number of schemes or concepts that you went into a game week with?
Leach: Basically, on the script we would have 60 plays going into a game, but there would be some repetition to it. It may be a similar play out of a different formation. The hardest thing is to limit your package because there are a ton of good ideas out there. If you like what someone is doing and you want to implement it, you have to replace one of your plays with it. I’ve never felt like you need like ten plays to attack the flat or something like that or ten ways to go off tackle. You need two or three really good ones. Sometimes you only need one. The biggest thing is to control your package.
Kuchar: When you were game planning your pass offense, were you more interested in defeating certain coverages or were you more concerned with what you felt your offense mastered?
Leach: I would tailor our offensive personnel based on what we did that would put us in the best situation to attack the space they provided. For example, all defenses would have strengths and weaknesses to it. They will both provide space and takeaway space. Not to sound philosophical, but offenses are created to take the most space as possible while defenses are expected to restrict space. We would look for the formation, the personnel grouping and the play that would create the most space possible. The more times you put yourself in a position, based on the vulnerability that exists of that defense to give yourself the best opportunity of success, the higher your chances are going to be. We would check plays at the line of scrimmage to get us there. But it wasn’t always about checking out of plays it was also checking into plays like running our vertical concept against corners that we knew we could beat. It was just recognizing an opportunity to attack them.
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Kuchar: You are also known for creating space at the line of scrimmage with your wide offensive line splits. Tell us about the philosophy behind it.
Leach: To me, the ultimate offenses in terms of distribution are what we do and the old school wishbone offense and both of them have wide splits with their lineman. We would do it for zone run lanes and pass blocking assignments because the edge guys are now wider from the QB than they would be. We start out at three feet. If we had no trouble in blocking them than we would widen, if we had trouble then we’d tighten them. Defenses would try to keep a guy in the middle of a gap and shoot that gap, if they did that we would keep it at three feet. We would just take deeper drop steps to get angles in our run game. No defenses ever had success in doing that [shooting gaps] against us because, again, it wasn’t something they would consistently do so they weren’t comfortable in doing it. They’re not good at just shooting gaps because they haven’t done it except for three practices in preparing to defend us.
Kuchar: Is this simplicity what made your offenses so difficult to defend and prepare for?
Leach: I think what we did is cover up what we did by bringing it from different formations or motions or something like that. Formations are easiest because they are not terribly taxing on an offense because it doesn’t change your assignment very much or not much at all. Formation means, alright, "You stand here and run this route from here or block that guy from here instead of over there." If you change a play than obviously the whole assignment structure is different.
Kuchar: When our research staff broke down your game films, we noticed that you were really only using 2x2 and 3x1 sets. We didn’t see a ton of formations. Have you changed your philosophy on that by what you’re telling us now?
Leach: Well we used more than a lot other people. We did 3x1, 2x2, 2x1, two split backs, we can go tight, we had a nasty set with one back and two tight ends to one side than we had a double tight end set. That was the basis of it. Within that we would run quite a few plays between those formations. There weren’t a lot of plays that we couldn’t run out of a variety of formations.
Kuchar: I noticed you didn’t mention empty. How come you didn’t like the empty package being that most spread guys do?
Leach: We didn’t monkey around too much with empty. I think it’s good if you can major it in, but I don’t like it as just a formation. It’s a little bit more of an offense. I think if you’re going to run your quarterback the empty package is more beneficial than if not. A defense is always vulnerable to the QB run. If you’re not going to run the QB than I don’t like it. What I don’t like is the best athlete on the field in one-back offenses should be your running back and then all of a sudden you either take him off the field or put him somewhere where he’s not used to being. You start to line him up as a wide receiver. Now, he may be able to catch the ball, but he’s not used to being a wide receiver on the line of scrimmage. Where it really hurts you is when you take him out of the protection schemes. In one-back offenses, the running back should be an experienced pass protector and run threat. Now, he’s removed from both situations. I would rather play my protection with my running back and not my tight end. The last and most important reason for not using empty is that a defense can line up to you and restrict your offensive effort to either screens or QB runs. If you’re good at QB runs and have Vince Young you can get them out of there in a hurry. I don’t like that they can make me one dimensional.
Kuchar: Coach, a lot of X&O Labs’ readers love to incorporate empty because they get their running back to run routes like shallows, crosses, bubbles and slip screens. It gets their athlete the ball in space. Why would this not be beneficial to what you do?
Leach: The thing about it is if I line a defense without pressing but tight enough where screens are difficult, like defensive backs being six yards off, and I cover up your center, cover up your two guards and stick a Mike linebacker behind my nose guard and play games with which A gap he’s coming to, the only choice you have is to run that QB. You can try to get those screens out there but it becomes the law of diminishing returns. You can’t do it every snap. Again, if I was going to run my QB 10-15 times a game than empty would be a lot more appealing to me.
Kuchar: How did you break down your offensive package? Did you break it down to attack certain areas of the field or did you break it down based on schemes that take advantage of your players’ abilities?
Leach: I wanted to do two things; I wanted the package to attack the whole field and I wanted the package to utilize all of the offensive positions. I never wanted to have an offensive position that wasn’t going to touch the ball. Your package has to create a level of distribution by attacking all the space available. The hardest thing to do as a coordinator is to select the plays you’re going to be good at. If you’re going to be good at them, you have to rep them over and over again. The one advantage you have over a defense is an offense can rep their offense every day. A defense has to work on a variety of offenses because it changes from week to week. You work one portion of your offense against different defenses. If you do something new all the time you relinquish that advantage. Let’s say worst case scenario is you have a really talented corner and I have a young and inexperienced receiver. Well the thing I can ensure is that he’s run more corner routes and caught more corner routes than that DB has defended. Or he’s caught more curl routes than that DB has defended. So if you keep changing and fiddling with stuff you relinquish advantage.
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Kuchar: We spoke to former Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Tom Moore who mentioned that wide receiver Marvin Harrison would always be the left wide receiver. He never liked to move him around because it may cause him to be uncomfortable in his routes. Did you do the same with receivers like Michael Crabtree? Do you believe in this theory?
Leach: The less we moved them around the better we were. Execution is more important than fooling anybody. Some coaches think it may be the other way around, but that’s untrue. If you move a guy around less, than he gets used to executing from that spot over and over again. Say, for example a vertical route. A receiver to the left will get used to catching a vertical route on his right shoulder over and over again instead of catching over his left. He’s gotten more work at it and his skills have gotten better at it. It’s like a personality trait. I’ve seen it with lineman, too. I’ve had some great, great, great players who didn’t have the versatility to move around. Yet, I’ve had some mediocre players that did. It can be addressed on whether they have the personality to do so. An example is a punt returner and a tunnel screen guy. I’ve had guys that were fast, slow, fat, and skinny, but they just have a feel for it.
Kuchar: Since you had a variety of routes in your offensive package, which way did you feel was the best way to call your routes? Was it a route tree? A concept system?
Leach: I always liked things about a passing tree because it’s quick to teach because you get everybody on the same page fast. You can’t just say in the booth, "We should just run a seven route there it would be effective." Now that may sound good and as a coach that may be easy for you to call, but it’s far tougher to execute than it is to call because that particular receiver may not know how to correctly run a seven route. But if you teach all your receivers the seven route then it’s beneficial. However, I’ve never been a passing tree guy because I would often feel the need to tinker with it and I didn’t think it was helping my players, particularly during the game.
Instead of saying something like 962 like you would in a passing tree, we would say something like "63." The first number would be the number of the protection and the second number would be the route combination. It would mean these receivers have these combinations of routes. One may have the slant, one may have the post, one may have the swing, etc. So, if you wanted to change the route, you just change a number. In our system, you might say "63 F Post" or "63 F Wheel." It’s not as wordy as a passing tree. One thing I think we did well was reduce the verbiage of the play to make the call as short and as quick as possible. For example everyone runs the "stick" concept, with a vertical outside, an option route by the inside receiver and flat route by the running back. I’ve been at places where there are a ton of verbiage and an episode of charades to signal in the stick route.
Kuchar: If you have all those formations in your package that you mentioned, how did you cut the verbiage down?
Leach: People have used cards (like Oregon), but we broke it down into the amount of backs that were in the backfield. Two backs we used colors and one-back we would use words. Our words would be like Ace, Early, Late, Flip, and Deuce. We tried to make the words mean something. Early would mean a receiver is inside of a particular guy and Late would be outside, etc. One way that might be better is to name a personnel grouping, not a formation.
Kuchar: Coach, pleasure speaking with you and we appreciate you being involved in X&O Labs. I look forward to our next two interviews.
Leach: Thank you, Mike. I look forward to talking with you again.
Researchers’ Note: You are reading the summary version of X&O Labs' exclusive Mike Leach interview series. To access the full versions of all three interviews, please CLICK HERE.
Conclusion: We all know it's the Leach System that breeds success. From Kliff Kingsbury to Graham Harrell, Leach has mentored all of this QB's to compile astronomical numbers. Interesting thing is he may be one of the only coaches in the country with the confidence to give his signal caller complete carte blanche over making his own checks at the line of scrimmage. In Part 2 of X&O Lab's exclusive interview with former Texas Tech head coach, Mike Leach, he'll reflect on how he trains his QB's to operate in his system by reading coverages, identifying numbers, assessing leverage and making the right checks to get into the right play call. He'll even detail his every day drills and progressions for his quarterbacks that sharpen their reads. It's complete coverage on how his QB's can get the ball out right on time and in the right place.
Here's links to all our Mike Leach interview series:
Interview #1: Mike Leach's Offense: Perception Vs. Reality
Interview #2: Mike Leach: Training the QB
Interview #3: Mike Leach's Mesh Concept: a Video Analysis
Have questions or comments? X&O Labs’ Mike Kuchar is available to answer your questions. Post your questions or comments in the "Comments" section below and Kuchar will answer shortly.