Strictly by label, Kentucky’s new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson is defined as an “Air Raid Guy.”
Given the fact that UK football once employed the very guy who invented the Air Raid in none other than Hal Mumme, not to mention several of his protégés, you’d think we would have seen Dawson’s kind before.
To be sure, the former West Virginia quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator has all the makings of an “Air Raid Guy.” He has the swagger. He has the part laid-back, part gunslinger manner. He has the pedigree, having learned his chops at WVU from Dana Holgorsen.
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And yet just as defenses have learned to adapt to Air Raid offenses, Dawson’s the “Air Raid Guy” who has learned to adapt, as well.
That’s what UK head coach Mark Stoops wanted when he hired Dawson to replace another “Air Raid Guy” in former offensive coordinator Neal Brown, now the head coach at Troy.
A former defensive coordinator, Stoops was looking for (a) continuity and (b) a commitment to physical football. He was looking for the next step in the Air Raid.
At the forefront of that evolution was Holgorsen/Dawson and what they were doing at West Virginia, where the Mountaineers ran the football quite a lot last season. Team stats show the Mountaineers ran it 563 times last season. They threw it 534.
“Years ago, the pass set up the run,” Dawson, talking during UK’s fall camp, said of the Air Raid philosophy. “We were so pass-heavy that in the run game nobody played us honest. I would think now it’s leveled off to where when we get in heavier sets people respect the run because we’ll call it a lot. I think now the run sets up the deeper pass.”
If you’ve listened to Stoops in his first two years at UK, the coach talks a lot about the play-action pass, i.e. faking a handoff to a running back and then throwing the ball. Stoops talks about it from a defensive point of view, from how difficult it is to defend when facing an opponent with a strong running game.
Look for a lot of that on the offensive side under Dawson’s direction. Don’t expect this “Air Raid Guy” to get away from the pass; do expect him to use it in a different way.
“I think defenses are a little different too,” Dawson said. “Especially in this league (the SEC), you don’t see a lot of two-high safeties over the top. It’s more of a man coverage deal. When you do catch them in zone, you can manipulate those safeties a little bit. So you’ve got to make plays down the field.”
Dawson is new to this league as a coordinator, but he’s not a stranger.
“I watched games even before I came here, so I understand defenses and understand leagues,” Dawson said. “But when I got here, I went back and watched all the (UK) games from last year, just for curiosity and watching kids.
“But I will say this, taking it a step further, every league now is a ‘man’ league. Even the Big 12. The last two or three years, if you watched the Big 12, it’s become more of a ‘man’ league, too. Defenses are sort of evolving to what the SEC has been doing.”
Why is that?
“There’s an emphasis on two things defensively across the nation: rushing the passer and covering,” Dawson said. “If you look at defenses years ago, the trend was get big and stop the run and play zone defense. Now that teams throw the ball down the field more, there’s an emphasis on rushing the passer and covering.
“And kids are bigger these days. So you can get kids that can rush the passer and play the run a little more now than you probably could. So the evolution of the human body and just the fact that philosophically coaches are getting better and better at what they’re doing. So man coverage is being emphasized across the board.”
Is that why there’s such a defensive emphasis on recruiting good cornerbacks?
“You better,” Dawson said. “If you’re going to overload the box, you better have good corners.”
And if you’re an “Air Raid Guy” who is going to succeed in today’s football, you’d better be able to adapt.