Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports is reporting what most Ole Miss fans have expected to hear for over a week: Hugh Freeze has hired Sam Houston State offensive coordinator Phil Longo in the same capacity in Oxford.
The cliff notes on Longo are that he’s spent the last decade as one of the top offensive minds at the FCS level, making a series of successful stops before landing as the coordinator of Sam Houston State three seasons ago. There, he continued to evolve his particular strain of the Air Raid offense, using spread concepts and tempo to lead the FCS in yards per game each of the last two seasons. The Bearkats averaged an incredible 488 yards and 37.8 points per contest over that 31-game stretch, though they’ve struggled against stiffer competition, averaging under 7 points in the three playoff losses under Longo.
So what makes Longo’s offenses tick, and what can we expect him to deploy in Oxford? Here are three things you should know.
Longo’s offense wants to go fast.
With its spread concepts and heavy reliance on run-pass options, Sam Houston State’s attack looked a hell of a lot like Ole Miss’. But it’s Longo’s reliance on tempo that was likely of particular interest to Freeze. The 1,275 plays run by the Bearkats in 2015 is a league record and they surpassed 100 plays in a single game three times that season.
Ole Miss’ plays per game increased from 75.5 in 2015 to 78.7 in 2016, but Freeze still had to routinely slow things down to rest his terrible defense (the Rebels ranked 41st in adjusted pace this season). If the D improves under a new coordinator in 2017 (and let’s be honest, it has nowhere to go but up), Freeze will want to speed things up even more. Longo has no problem stepping on the gas.
Longo’s attack is more balanced than your typical Air Raid.
Two decades ago, when Longo was coaching high school ball in New Jersey, he drove to Kentucky to hear Mike Leach, then the OC under Hal Mumme, speak about the Air Raid offense. The trip launched a fascination with the pass-happy system, and Longo has continued to meet with both Leach and current Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury, who Longo got to know while Kingsbury was quarterbacking Leach’s Red Raiders offense in the early 2000s.
The unique version of the Air Raid developed by Longo is more balanced—if only moderately so—than those of his mentors. While Leach’s Washington State and Kingsbury’s Texas Tech both threw the ball over 62 percent of the time in 2016 (the highest two rates in the FBS), Longo’s Sam Houston State threw it at a more restrained 55 percent clip—identical to Ole Miss’ passing rate in 2016.
Over the last three seasons, Sam Houston State has ranked 12th, 10th and 19th in yards per carry, averaging 5.25 during that span. The Rebels, who averaged 4.25 yards per carry and finished 82nd in rushing success rate in 2016, desperately need to become more efficient on the ground.
Longo simplifies things considerably for his QBs.
In addition to taking over as coordinator, Longo will be expected to replace Werner as the Rebels’ quarterback coach. While passers in Longo’s system are expected to produce big numbers—junior Jeremiah Briscoe piled up 4,602 passing yards and 57 passing touchdowns this season—they aren’t asked to do a lot of mental lifting. The majority of the pre-snap reads are made not by the quarterback, but by the receivers and running backs.
“QBs never ‘read’ defenders,” Longo told Fox Sports in October. “I just want him to execute the play. Our quarterback gets the signal, IDs the coverage and takes the snap. We delegate all the QB’s duties out to everybody else.
"We ask our receivers to run their route based on how the defenders in their area of the field are reacting. For instance, a Hook route’s going to look different vs. Cover 3 than it would vs. Cover 4 or vs. Cover 6.”
Longo says he has just 26 plays in his offensive playbook, but that the adjustments made in response to defensive alignments make it seem like a lot more.
Whether that concept will work in the SEC (and whether Freeze will adopt it) remains to be seen, but there’s no question that it’s paid off in Longo’s previous stops. Twice he’s coached passers who won the FCS equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Briscoe, who threw just 10 interceptions in 503 attempts and averaged 9.2 yards per pass in 2016, has raved about how much easier the system is for quarterbacks.
In Oxford, Longo will be coaching a true sophomore QB with just three starts under his belt. The inexperienced but immensely talented Shea Patterson was at his best this season when improvising and relying on his athleticism, which could mesh well with a system that relieves some of the mental strain on the passer.