If you’ve read anything in the last few days about new Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo, you’ve seen a lot of references to the Air Raid offense, the pass-obsessed system that’s taken over the Big 12. Longo describes himself as “100 percent Air Raid when it comes to the philosophical approach to throwing the football” and lists Mike Leach, the architect of the system, as his most significant professional influence.
That could all be of particular interest to one Cam Akers, the best recruit in the state of Mississippi and the No. 1 running back prospect in the country. Akers is being recruited by run-heavy teams like LSU, Ohio State and Florida State, and the concern among Rebel fans is that he’ll be turned off by Longo’s Air Raid offense. Bagging Akers is the top priority for Hugh Freeze in a year in which the NCAA investigation has trampled Ole Miss’ typically productive recruiting (the Rebels’ 2017 class currently ranks 47th).
So will the new coordinator hire push Akers away from Ole Miss? Not if he takes the time to learn about Longo’s system.
For starters, Longo’s offense is more balanced than a typical Air Raid.
"In the passing game, I 100 percent believe in that philosophy [of Leach and Texas Tech’s Kliff Kingsbury] throwing the ball. I think they're as good as anybody in the business throwing the football,” Longo told 247Sports on Friday. “Probably the biggest difference is that there is a very physical downhill run component to our offense."
Longo, who spent the last three seasons as the coordinator of FCS power Sam Houston State, threw the ball on 55 percent of his plays in 2016, which would have ranked as the 18th highest rate in the FBS this season (though still considerably lower than the 62 percent rates of Leach and Kingsbury). But that was with superstar quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe on the roster. In the two previous seasons combined, Sam Houston State passed only 41 percent of the time, which would have ranked all the way down at 97th in the FBS this season—just in front of Alabama.
In both 2014 and 2015, Longo’s offense ranked top 12 among FCS schools in rushing attempts, rushing yards per game and yards per carry. He’ll undoubtedly make sure Akers sees those numbers.
Longo will be willing to change his offense for Akers.
Not as a recruiting ploy, mind you, but as a practical adjustment. Longo has described his offense as a puzzle with square pieces, a system in which the components can be moved around fluidly to adjust for personnel strengths.
“It's designed to be more flexible so that regardless of our talent base we have the flexibility in the offense to promote the more talented players,” he told 247Sports. “There are games we run the ball 70 times to win it and games where we throw 70 times to win it. I'm perfectly willing to do either ...”
If Akers is half as good as he’s expected to be, Longo will be more than willing to tailor his offensive strategy to feature a star running back.
True, Longo never featured a back at Sam Houston State. In 2014, he gave the majority of carries to dual-threat quarterback Jared Johnson. In 2015, three of Longo’s running backs had at least 100 carries but none went over 200. With Briscoe doing the heavy lifting through the air this season, the Bearkats’ top two backs averaged about 11 carries apiece per game.
But Longo has also never had a back as talented as Akers.
Akers could do well in a power spread.
Longo will tweak his offense to promote Akers, but it’s not like he’s going to start running out of the I-formation 30 times a game. The Rebels will be a spread offense that includes a former No. 1 quarterback recruit and a loaded receiving corps, and they’ll do plenty of passing. But while those things initially sound like negatives for a running back, Freeze and Longo can sell them as positives. Longo’s offensive philosophy is predicated on the notion of “chasing space,” or attacking a defense where it has fewer bodies. When defenses back up or play the edges against Ole Miss’ spread passing game, space will open up on the interior for Akers.
“That’s definitely attractive,” Akers told 247Sports before Longo’s hire. “Having weapons around you as a running back, you always want that. Somebody who can spread the defense out, open the box up a little bit with good receivers and a good quarterback. And they’ve got the same offensive line coming back, I think.”
One hitch in all of this is that we’re currently in the middle of a recruiting dead period that runs through Jan. 11, which means Longo won’t have a chance to speak face-to-face with Akers before his expected commitment at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl on Jan. 7. But the dead period does allow for coaches to communicate with recruits over the phone, which will give Longo a chance to develop a relationship and explain his system.
The Rebels still face an uphill battle for Akers.
No matter what Longo changes in Oxford, Ole Miss’ offense still won’t be as appealing to a running back as the units at LSU, Ohio State and Florida State, all of which ran the ball more than 53 percent of the time in 2016. The Buckeyes have an alum tearing his way to NFL Rookie of the Year and the Tigers and ‘Noles will have running backs drafted in the first round come April.
“A lot of Ole Miss’ recruiting pitch to Akers is based off of emotional appeals,” Hugh Kellenberger of The Clarion-Ledger said earlier this week. “‘We are the ones that have been recruiting you the longest. We are the ones that are inside Mississippi. Be a Mississippian, be a native son that goes to a state school and does great things...’
“But they’re having to play catch-up on the practical appeal. LSU and Florida State I don’t think have near the same sort of emotional appeal, but they are far ahead of Ole Miss on a practical level.”
If Ole Miss doesn’t sign Akers, though, it probably won’t be because of Longo’s hiring. Assuming his philosophy is effectively communicated to Akers, Longo won’t hurt the Rebels’ chances. If anything, his commitment to fixing up Freeze’s long-struggling run game should provide a boost.