Les Miles, of all people, is the new Kansas football coach, and Stewart Mandel at The Athletic wrote what a lot of people were thinking with a column calling KU’s decision to hire him unimaginative and short-sighted.
Mandel makes an argument I’ve made myself, which is that Kansas and programs like it have to be operating under alternative strategic premises in order to compete with bigger and more athletic teams, which are the kinds of teams Kansas faces more often than not.
What Kansas absolutely, positively needed most in this hire was an innovator. And no one who followed Miles’ slow downfall at LSU would use that word to describe him.
So that’s all good, but I think there’s some confusion about what constitutes innovation in football in 2018, and I think it’s likely Kansas is going to be better off in the short and long term by running Les Miles’ ol’ fashioned ball-control game than it would trying to run a budget version of Oklahoma’s offense with Budget Kyler Murray.
And now he’s going to one of the most innovative offensive conferences in the country, the one that gave rise to Baylor and the Air Raid, where Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield honed their craft. Kyler Murray and Will Grier will be gone by the time Miles gets to the Big 12, but rest assured there’ll be another wave of ultra-efficient quarterbacks right behind them.
If the Big 12 were actually an innovative league, we’d be seeing some take on the triple option, we’d be seeing a dual-quarterback system, we’d be seeing defensive alignments from outer space. But we aren’t. We’re seeing a bunch of people run a 40-year-old offense that has only now become the mainstream.
In 2018, the once-innovative Air Raid is what “alt rock” was in the late 90s.
Which is to say, not alternative at all.
The column mentions Iowa State, which is ranked 25th, as a Big 12 program that is zagging while everybody else zigs. And Iowa State is doing that. But not through any new Xs or Os. The Cyclones run a spread offense like everybody else, they just do it patiently, carefully, and slowly, using most of the play clock most of the time. They have the Big 12’s No. 1 rush defense and No. 2 overall defense, but they have not re-invented defense in any way. Instead, the Cyclones and defensive coordinator Jon Heacock built their strategy around defending the Big 12’s many fast-moving spread offenses with a steady stream of fresh defensive players.
Iowa State has about 10 options it likes to use in the secondary, seven on the defensive line and six at linebacker. But what makes Iowa State’s defense unique is that it doesn’t seem to miss a beat with whomever is in.
That was a goal of Heacock’s. He wanted to provide a strong defensive game plan and also put together a unit that was full of options. After looking at all the explosive offenses of the Big 12, Heacock wanted to build as much depth on his team as possible so he could sub in as much as possible and stop his defense from running out of gas at the end of games.
Iowa State has recruited well in the sense the players it has recruited are playing well for Iowa State, but the season Iowa State is having is not the result of a couple Top 25 classes or anything.
Take a look at the Rivals.com class rankings for Iowa State and Kansas over the last five years.
Iowa State: 56
Iowa State: 68
Iowa State: 53
Iowa State: 44
Iowa State 55
Other than the huge difference in 2016, these are the same programs when it comes to recruiting. It’s two-star and three-star recruits, unless you’ve really got it going good, when it’s almost all three stars and a couple of four stars, and that’s it. (Weirdly, at Kansas, those four-stars don’t often pan out).
In 2007, the year Miles won the national title at LSU, Kansas was also in the national title hunt late in the year, playing a completely different style from the Tigers and Alabama and a lot of the other top powers. KU was 11-0 and No. 2, and wound up 12-1 after a win over Virginia Tech in the Orange Bowl. The starting cornerbacks on that team were Chris Harris and Aqib Talib, and you hear that now and think, “Holy crap, how’d KU pull that off?” Well, Talib was a two-star recruit whose second-best offer was from Wyoming. Chris Harris was a two-star wide receiver.
The record-setting quarterback, Todd Reesing, was a three-star whose only other offer was from Duke. The leading receiver was a three-star quarterback from a small town in Kansas. The other leading receiver was the second-best prospect at his position on his high school team.
If atmospheric conditions were just so, their 1,100-yard rusher could run about a 4.9, and their 800-yard rusher was from Salina.
These wound up being outstanding players, some All-Americans, but Kansas didn’t get them by out-pitching Texas A&M in the living room.
An eye for overlooked talent and a knack for developing and utilizing unconventional players was what made the 2007 Kansas roster as good as it was. What took it to the level of “best team in school history” was a highly intelligent, highly skilled and highly competitive quarterback giving Mangino and first-year offensive coordinator Ed Warinner the freedom to turn the spread concepts up to 11.
Kansas was not even close to the first team to run the spread. Texas Tech and Missouri had already been doing it, and Mangino and Leach had operated Air Raid stuff together at Oklahoma as early as 2000. That link with Leach connects a straight line from the origins of the Air Raid under Lavell Edwards at BYU in the late 70s and early 80s to Kansas in the 2000s. Mangino was an early adopter of these concepts, and when he finally had a good enough and smart enough team to really run with them, Kansas became extremely difficult to prepare for.
Within a couple years, that schematic advantage had mostly washed away, but you have to remember than in 2007, Dennis Franchione was running the veer at Texas A&M, Bill Callahan was doing his West Coast stuff at Nebraska, Colorado was under center a lot under Dan Hawkins, Kansas State was running a pro style offense with Josh Freeman under Ron Prince. And there was a lot of talk in 2007 and 2008 about how defenses were having a hard time dealing with the spread stuff because they were built to stop … the kinds of teams Les Miles was building at LSU.
But that was a decade ago, and now the Today’s Top Hits style of football — the style Alabama plays — is a hurry-up spread that gets athletes out in space. Well, if their athletes out in space are better than your athletes out in space, you’ve got to change the premise somehow.
You’ve got to pull an Iowa State.
I’m not sure Les Miles was the ideal hire for Kansas, in that he is 65 and there were younger and more inventive head coaches out there (Willie Fritz). But Iowa State is a good example of a team that has made a big turnaround by playing the same way Miles likes to play. Regardless of how they line up, Iowa State’s playing style is, like 2007 Kansas, just unusual enough to make opponents uncomfortable, and by keeping everyone fresh, disadvantages in speed, strength and talent are reduced.
It’s true that Miles is not an inventive coach and that Kansas was unimaginative in hiring him, but in an era when everybody is a so-called “innovator” maybe the real innovation is not to change at all.