Mike Leach’s view of the spread offense initially was anything but clear to Taylor Potts.
Soon after Potts arrived at Texas Tech, he embarked on a freshman season characterized by a dizzying array of new concepts and nomenclature. It was a steep learning curve that initially had his head spinning as he received a crash course in Leach’s demands to grasp his offensive philosophy.
“When I first got here, everything was different. The names of the routes were different, and it was almost like I was learning a foreign language,” Potts said. “But now, after being here almost three years, I feel like I’m finally fluent in it.
“Sometimes I take it for granted because it comes so easily. But after you’ve learned it for a year or so, it comes simply, and everything becomes pretty clear the more you are exposed to it.”
The biggest reason for Potts’ transformation has come from working with Leach, who has been using his “Air Raid” spread offense since his arrival at Texas Tech in 2000.
“Our coaches have the ability to break down an offense and make it as simple as possible,” Potts said. “There are some complicated things that go with it, but nothing too complicated.
“It’s basically just breaking things down, knowing them, and then being able to recognize and realize what I’m supposed to do. At quarterback, our system is based on being able to see things and then react without thinking. And that’s what makes us so successful.”
That might be an understatement. In eight of the past nine seasons, a Texas Tech quarterback has led the nation in passing. And in 2006, Graham Harrell was second.
Kliff Kingsbury, B.J. Symons and Harrell claimed the Sammy Baugh Trophy as the nation’s top passer and all were Heisman Trophy contenders during their senior seasons.
Harrell left after last season with an NCAA-record 134 career touchdown passes. During his Texas Tech career, he became the first player in FBS history to pass for more than 5,000 yards in more than one season.
Leach’s teaching skills were best illustrated from 2003 to 2005, when a new starting quarterback was plugged in each season with Symons, Sonny Cumbie and Cody Hodges taking snaps for Texas Tech. All the one-season senior starters for the Red Raiders passed for at least 4,197 yards with a 64.4 percent completion percentage and at least 31 touchdowns as the Red Raiders went 8-5, 8-4 and 9-3 during that three-season span.
Those numbers are a pretty good indicator that familiarity with Leach’s system trains a senior quarterback for productivity when he receives his chance — even without much previous playing experience.
“Part of it is Coach Leach coaching you up as a quarterback, and then when you get the chance, you’re ready for the opportunity,” Cumbie said.
Cumbie might be the best example. He arrived in college as a walk-on from tiny Snyder (Texas) High School with little experience in spread offenses. He played in a wing-T offense in high school and seldom threw in that run-based offense, even though he was coached in high school by David Baugh, son of legendary Hall of Fame quarterback Sammy Baugh.
Coming to Texas Tech gave Cumbie the opportunity to learn for several years as he watched Kingsbury and Symons progress in the system. When he received his playing opportunity as a senior, he made the most of it by throwing for a nation-leading 4,742 yards and 32 touchdown passes as he led the Red Raiders to an 8-4 season capped with a Holiday Bowl triumph over California.
After three years of Harrell, some might expect a big regression with Potts operating Leach’s offense. But his familiarity with the offense gives him a good chance for success, just like Symons, Cumbie and Hodges.
Leach has already anointed Potts the starting quarterback even before preseason practice has begun.
“He’s a great student of the game and further along than most guys I’ve had,” Leach said. “Taylor is a smart, talented guy, and he’s followed Graham, who provided him with a great example. I think he’ll be ready when he has his chance.”
The Texas Tech quarterbacks over the years typically have followed a specific pattern of development in Leach’s offense.
“The most important thing is you have to be accurate with the football and a good decision-maker — really being decisive,” Cumbie said. “Those are really 1A and 1B in what we do. Then, you have to be a guy who really studies film. But all of those guys have basically all had the same talents and just polished them up the longer they are there.”
The major reason for their success was their proficiency operating Leach’s spread offense, which the coach claims is no big deal.
“I’ve never thought of it as rocket science,” Leach said. “What you try to do is blend your coaching with the player as tightly as you can. A player gets more comfortable with as they work with it, and you improve with your teaching with them as you go along.”
It also helps to have a quarterback with the skills to flourish in Leach’s spread offense.
“Basically, we want our quarterbacks to make good decisions, have quick feet and a knack for making the people around him better,” Leach said. “That’s always what I’m looking for when I’m trying to find a quarterback.”
Those rather general terms aren’t that different from most other teams’ requirements.
“It’s not like this stuff hasn’t been run before,” Leach said. “People ask me if it’s something new, but it’s not really unique. Maybe it’s organized in a unique way, but all of our stuff has been run before.”
Repetition and extensive film work build the framework for that growth. The quarterbacks then are schooled in every element of Leach’s offense before they get their shot at playing time.
That immersion in his offense is bolstered by the incredible freedom that Leach provides his quarterbacks once they take control of the offense. After such extensive preparation, Leach obviously feels comfortable that his players will be an extension of his coaching philosophy on the field because of all the time they have spent learning his system.
Kingsbury remembers that Leach’s philosophy was different from anything he had ever experienced.
“As we were learning the system, Coach Leach basically gives the quarterback the ability to call almost any play that you want,” Kingsbury said. “I hadn’t seen anything like that, where a coach would give you the freedom to check at almost any place on the field. As a college kid, getting that responsibility was very impressive.”
And as he became accustomed to Leach’s offense, that confidence helped embolden Kingsbury to become a better quarterback, he said.
“To give you that kind of responsibility, you have to feel comfortable in what you are doing,” Kingsbury said. “And I think it really helps a quarterback in their development to have that.”
Similar self-belief appears to have been nurtured with Potts, who appears ready to continue in Texas Tech’s long line of productive quarterbacks once he gets his chance.
“There’s a lot on our shoulders here because we are allowed to check [plays] whenever we want,” Potts said. “Coach Leach says he knows that we can go out and play well — all we need to do is just go out and do it. And the ability to go out and check plays provides you with a lot of confidence once you get your chance. It’s something that just builds and grows as you play here.”
Tim Griffin is ESPN.com’s Big 12 football blogger. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.