Twenty years ago, Dana Holgorsen was an underwhelming wide receiver at an undersized school (Iowa Wesleyan), playing for a man with an oversized imagination.
That man was Hal Mumme, the unlikely progenitor of an offensive style that has outgrown its inventor and become the most powerful weapon in college football. The offense is the Air Raid, built on the BYU notion that throwing the ball all over the yard can equalize a talent deficit. Like most revolutionaries, Mumme started small: He nurtured his project amid the tumbleweeds of Texas on the high-school level, then got his break in college coaching at Iowa Wesleyan in the late 1980s. That's where Holgorsen came under his wing.
An unabashed contrarian and certified know-it-all, Mumme would ultimately ride his offensive scheme to the Southeastern Conference, where he made perennial punching bag Kentucky respectable. Then it would all crash down amid an NCAA scandal that helped return him to the small-school level from which he came. But his colorful colony of True Believers would continue to spread the word and the style, tweaking it along the way, with the scoreboard rewarding their faith in a counter-culture approach.
Mike Leach was a True Believer, implementing the offense as a coordinator at Oklahoma and then as head coach at Texas Tech. So were Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin, on the staff at Kentucky and now the head coach and offensive coordinator at high-octane, undefeated Louisiana Tech. So was Chris Hatcher, whose FCS Murray State team put 70 on the board last weekend against Tennessee Tech.
Hatcher played for Mumme at Valdosta State. His position coach there was Holgorsen, whose West Virginia team scored 70 last weekend as well – a considerably more noticeable 70 – against Baylor.
"If I'd known they were going to score 70," Hatcher said, "I probably would have tacked one more on at the end to beat him."
Right now, all the True Believers are watching Holgorsen coach what may be the apotheosis of the Air Raid at West Virginia. The separating factor is the guy doing the throwing.
In a lineage that includes an NFL No. 1 pick (Tim Couch), a Heisman Trophy winner (Jason White), the all-time passing yardage leader (Case Keenum) and a current NFL starter (Brandon Weeden), Geno Smith might be the best Air Raid quarterback yet.
After every West Virginia practice, Geno Smith drops off an iPad for the Mountaineers video staff to download video. He gets all the cut-ups of the offense and takes them home to study.
"He's already watched it three or four times before I've even met with him," said quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital. "He's been that way since day one when we got here."
The Air Raid offense does not work from an inches-thick playbook. But it requires a quarterback who can think on his own, and quickly – probably the biggest difference between what Holgorsen and others are doing today from what Mumme was doing in the 1990s is tempo. Huddles are for stallers in today's Air Raid.
So a quarterback like Smith, who has a perfectionist streak and a penchant for preparedness, suits the system well. Especially if he also has abundant physical gifts.
"He loves the game of football," Holgorsen said. "I've never been around a guy who has just developed his entire game like him. His confidence is at an all-time high. Physically he's better, he's bigger, he's faster, he's stronger. Escapability in the pocket is unbelievable, arm strength, accuracy.
"He's a student of the game. Very cerebral."
On a teleconference this week, Smith said, "I can make every throw. That's not a cocky statement or anything like that, that's just how I am." What he really wanted to brag about was the work he's put in from the neck up.
"I'm all about the mental aspect of the game," he said. "That's what puts me ahead, I think."
Smith is so far ahead of his quarterback competition that it's a one-man Heisman Trophy discussion right now. His current passer rating is 208.4, far exceeding the NCAA record of 191.7 Russell Wilson set last season. The quarterback Smith will compete with Saturday, Texas' David Ash, is a distant second nationally at 184.
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Smith has thrown 20 touchdowns and 28 incompletions. The next interception he throws will be his first since Dec. 1, 2011, a streak of 222 straight passes. His season completion percentage (83.4) is well ahead of Colt McCoy's record of 76.7.
Going back to West Virginia's Orange Bowl detonation of Clemson – the game that really primed the pump for both Smith and the Mountaineers for this season – the production has been preposterous. West Virginia has scored 10 touchdowns in three of its last five games.
Nobody in the Air Raid family tree can compete with that. Watching Holgorsen's work from afar, Hatcher is impressed by what he sees from Smith.
"It looks like he's executing at a really high level right now," Hatcher said. "When you have command of the offense, it allows you to be so much more decisive about the throws. He knows what Dana wants him to do.
"As coaches we always say, 'If we don't show up Saturday, we expect you to run the same offense without us.' "
Smith seems capable of that. Spavital said there have been games in the last year-plus where Smith has checked off at the line of scrimmage 80 percent of the time. As long as they're the right checks, that's fine with the coaches.
"We put a lot of things on our quarterback," Spavital said. "We operate in the gray area – there is no black and white. We have a game plan, but sometimes it doesn't work out that way and he's got to figure out what will work."
This could be the ultimate figure-it-out week for Smith and the Mountaineers. They play Texas, and defensive coordinator Manny Diaz might lead the nation in unpredictability. He's a chaos guy, throwing all manner of fronts, stunts, blitzes and coverages at a quarterback to see how they react.
For that reason, Spavital said Smith has been especially eager to lock horns with the Longhorns.
"He loves playing teams that have an exotic defense," Spavital said. "When there's a lot of moving parts, he enjoys the challenge. The teams that do pretty base stuff, he gets pretty bored with."
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There should be very little boring about the rest of Big 12 play for Smith. As far ahead as he is currently in the Heisman standings, nothing is won in September. Not with the crazy schemes of Texas, the pass rush of TCU, the athleticism of Oklahoma and the No. 1 pass defense in the nation of Texas Tech ahead on the schedule.
If Smith is going to win the Heisman, he will have to earn it.
"We still have a long season to go," Smith said. "I'm not going to get caught up in to the hype because in all actuality, it really doesn't mean much. I could go out and do poorly in my next game and I'm pretty sure the third line will be, 'Geno fails.' "
When Geno Smith watches film of other quarterbacks, he studies Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. There are schematic similarities between the offenses those NFL greats run and what West Virginia does, which shows how far the Air Raid has been integrated into the football mainstream.
Rodgers' backup in Green Bay is an Air Raid alum, former Texas Tech QB Graham Harrell. Holgorsen was an assistant at Tech during the early part of Harrell's career, then moved to Houston to coach Keenum in 2008-09, then on to Oklahoma State in 2010, where he tutored Weeden.
Spavital entered the True Believers colony with Holgorsen at Houston as a graduate assistant and followed him to Oklahoma State in the same capacity. When Holgorsen got the head-coaching job at West Virginia, Spavital got his first full-time assistant gig.
A key part of his job now: playing good cop with the quarterbacks to Holgorsen's bad cop.
"Dana will rip Geno's ass," Spavital said. "I'm not going to sit there and rip his ass, too."
The fact that it happens at all is another evolution from the original Air Raid. One of Mumme's flaws is that he always saw his quarterbacks as flawless. Whatever went wrong on the field was someone else's fault.
Geno Smith needs no protection from the truth – but then again, the truth is pretty positive these days. In this extraordinary season as the ultimate evolution of the Air Raid quarterback, it's all touchdowns and victories so far.
Rivals recruiting video of Geno Smith:
- American Football
- Sports & Recreation
- West Virginia
- Dana Holgorsen
- Geno Smith
- Hal Mumme
- Chris Hatcher