NORTH VANCOUVER — It’s one thing to learn from a book.
It’s yet another thing completely when your teacher, or in this instance your coach, decides that the best classroom experience he can give you is to make you an audience to the real thing.
Two Saturdays mornings ago, following a Friday Night Lights game in Seattle, Carson Graham Eagles head coach Brian Brady met his team in their hotel lobby, took a 5:30 a.m. roll call, then boarded his team for a six-and-a-half bus ride clear across the state to the rolling hills of the Palouse and the home of the Pac 12’s Washington State Cougars.
Last season, Brady installed the high-octane Air Raid offence throughout the Carson Graham program, and with the team achieving a greater level of proficiency within it, Brady decided it was time his senior varsity saw it operating not only at peak efficiency, but in real time as well.
So what better classroom to be in than the up-close-and-personal kind, with field passes for the pre-game warm-ups as Cougars’ head coach Mike Leach, one of the Air Raid’s pioneering practitioners, took his team through their paces prior to a non-conference tilt against the Northern Colorado Bears?
“Being able to have the kids on the field before the game was a great experience,” said Brady, a former Simon Fraser lineman. “(Washington State) were such great hosts, and it was pretty cool for the kids to be five feet away from where they were working out.”
In the end, Washington State won 59-17 over Northern Colorado, as quarterback Anthony Gordon went 31-of-39 for 464 yards and four touchdowns.
Most importantly? He defined the offence to his North Vancouver visitors by spreading the wealth around. By game’s end, nine different pass catchers had shared in the bounty.
“During game, the kids were flashing the hands signals that we use,” said Brady, “and the cool thing was, every play they ran, we run.”
FINDING A ‘REAL’ OFFENCE
For Carson Graham head coach Brady, the decision to implement the Air Raid offence fans will see on Saturday in the 33rd edition of the annual Buchanan Bowl crosstown rivalry with the Handsworth Royals (1:30 p.m., Confederation Park) goes beyond is most obvious pluses, ones which have changed the game over the past number of years at every level and made quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes, Kyler Murray and Baker Mayfield household names.
To him, the Air Raid was the best way to bring a built-in identity to a program which had returned to the highest tier of competition in the province and was looking for ways to make in-roads against the powerhouse likes of New Westminster, Lord Tweedsmuir, Mt. Douglas and Vancouver College.
“I got to the point where I just felt like I was taking the kinds of things I would see on Saturdays and Sundays and just putting them into a game plan,” says Brady. “But that was just a collection of plays. It wasn’t an offence.”
What Brady was looking for was an ‘offence’ in the full sense of the word, a system of play which was as much about zeroing in on a specific method of practice and skill development as it was in adopting the Xs and Os which defined it.
In other words, defining his team’s full DNA.
“The whole idea with the Air Raid is that it’s about lots of teamwork and practicing the heck out of it,” said Brady. “The philosophy is about balance, about everyone touching the ball. You want to attack horizontally and vertically. There is no way to defend the whole field, so if you pose a threat that way, it’s difficult to defend. And so the individual work that you do is within the context of the offence.”
There are misconceptions about the Air Raid.
“People think it’s 50-yard throws and throwing it 50 times a game, but the whole idea is to spread it around to different playmakers because we want to have balance,” continues Brady, who doesn’t hesitate to offer recommended reading on the topic, led by SC Gwynne’s The Perfect Pass — American Genius and the Reinvention of Football.
“I watch coach Leach during games and while other coaches have these call sheets that go from their waist to their knees, he is holding these small business cards,” Brady continues. “What he is doing is charting touches (by various players). Balance to them is not run-pass balance because they might throw it 80 per cent of the time. It’s how they are spreading the ball out to different playmakers on the field.”
On a team whose 2019 roster includes 26 players in either Grade 11 or Grade 10, Carson Graham’s version of the Air Raid starts with Grade 11 quarterback Lucas Granger, whom Brady calls the school’s most athletic pivot since 2015’s Subway Bowl AA-winning field general Tyler Nylander. It also includes a deep-and-rising core of athletic and talented pass-catching types like senior James Curleigh and Grade 11 Keavean Pashandi. And of course, in a more traditional sense, a cache of promising players along both lines and throughout the defence, including senior Logan Weidner.
“Our Grade 11 group is extremely talented,” Brady says, “and this season we have the ability to put five running backs or receivers on the field who can all be playmakers in space because our JV program ran (the Air Raid) last season, too. In Year 2, our coaches and our players just have a deeper understanding of it.”
AN AUDIENCE WITH AN AIR-RAID GURU
For those who thirst to learn at the source, sometimes all it takes is a little earnest outreach.
Even before its team trip earlier this month, Brady and new assistant coach Pouya Dourandish ventured to Pullman last March, talking with members of the Washington State coaching staff including offensive quality control coach Drew Hollingshead, and even getting a chance to attend meetings and practices run by head coach Leach.
“We were sitting in the meeting room and Drew is asking us ‘OK, what do you want to know?’ and so we go off to the practice field,” relates Brady.
Then comes the opportunity to see the offence take shape on the field behind one of its true pioneering practitioners.
“Coach Leach comes out with a cup of coffee,” Brady says. “And then I am just awe-struck by the simplicity of it all, how they boil it all down to the simplest of terms. And the biggest thing is that they practice running it with efficiency as opposed to the amount of plays. You are there, you are seeing it at such a high level and it really gets you. It’s so validating.”
And so much better than something learned straight from the pages of a book.
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