Ole Miss OC Phil Longo discusses Air Raid offense, why Shea Patterson is a ‘perfect fit’

OXFORD, Miss. — Just like his boss, Hugh Freeze, new Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo’s journey to the SEC began in the high school ranks. His ascension to college football’s most competitive level, however, marks an indirect return to the birth-grounds of his schematic philosophy.

This goes back to the late 90’s, when Mike Leach ran Kentucky’s offense under Hal Mumme, himself a former Texas high school coach who became an architect of the Air Raid. Longo, then just a head coach at Parsippany Hills High School (Troy, N.J.), drove down to Lexington and attended one of Leach’s coaching clinics.

The trip opened Longo’s eyes, to say the least, and so started a long-running relationship between the two men.

Longo spent the next two decades gradually climbing the coaching ladder, jumping to colleges like D-III William Patterson, Slippery Rock, Minnesota-Duluth and Southern Illinois. Eventually he garnered national attention while presiding over the absurdly prolific offense at Sam Houston State, an FCS program that led the country in total yards per game last season, and parlayed that success into his first ever D-I coaching job.

Longo spent this spring retooling an Ole Miss offense that loses starting quarterback Chad Kelly and leading receiver Evan Engram, along with experienced wideouts Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore’ea Stringfellow. In their absence, the Rebels will rely on what they hope is a new cast of stars — 5-star quarterback Shea Patterson, young receivers like Van Jefferson and D.K. Metcalf, and now-eligible running back Jordan Wilkins.

“The lights started coming on last week,” Longo said one day before the Rebel’s spring game. “I think things are starting to get into a rhythm this week.”

With so many fun toys in this Air Raid guru’s new offensive toolbox, it’s easy to imagine Ole Miss continuing to boast a potent passing attack this fall. Longo’s mentor Leach clearly believes his protege will enjoy success in the SEC.

“This is a great time to be in the SEC, everybody’s got the same offense: run right, run left, play action. And they tease themselves and say we threw it four more times a game this year than we did last year.”

In anticipation of all that, SEC Country spoke with Longo about his background, his system and his hopes for 2017. Below is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Q&A: Ole Miss offensive coordinator Phil Longo

SEC Country: It’s been a long climb for you to reach this point. How have your first few months in the SEC been?

Phil Longo: “It’s been good. I think everybody makes a bigger deal of that than I do. I certainly don’t downplay it. I’m excited about coaching against the best defenses in the nation and I’m excited about the talent we have here and the program that is Ole Miss. Those are all positives. I’ve always enjoyed football. Football is football. X’s and O’x is X’s and O’x. It’s been fun getting to know a high-character group of guys here.”

SECC: Is it funny knowing you can trace the roots of your Air Raid background to the SEC?

PL: “Mike (Leach) could’ve been anywhere and I’d have made the clinic and had a chance to meet him. He was in the SEC, at Kentucky. I’d never thought about that. We actually talk and chat about when he coached here. I’m going to fly out and see him next week. It’s exciting to be able to implement what we do and compete against the best.”

SECC: You’re going up to Washington State?

PL: “Yeah, I’ll be heading to Pullman next week, go see Mike and watch some of the things they’re doing.”

SECC: Obviously, Leach has heavily influenced how you run an offense. How does your specific version of the Air Raid compare to others who run it?

PL: “At some point I feel like it’s important to have an emphasis on the run game. I don’t particularly care if we throw or run it 70 times to win a game… As long as it’s what the defense is giving us, I’m all for it. From a pass game standpoint, it is all Air Raid. From an offensive philosophy standpoint, it’s all that philosophy — chasing space. I think the run game is what makes it a little different. The tempo, a smaller play list, are some things that’re the most similar. Mike is the purest. He’s going to run it the same way, and they’re going to be really good at it. Kliff Kingsbury on the other hand is a great creativity guy. He thinks outside the box. He’s able to scheme up some wrinkles that are touchdown plays each week. And I think he’s one of the best at doing that. I probably fall somewhere in between the two of them in terms of approach.”

SECC: Why does Patterson fit your system so well?

PL: “It’s a skill player-driven system. We create space both horizontally and vertically. Shea is a great space football player. He’s mobile. He can make any throw on the field. He can run the ball and he can extend plays in the pass game with his legs. To put an athletic guy that can think and throw in this system, it’s a perfect fit.”

SECC: Has it been an adjustment for the receivers, since more is expected of them as far as reading and reacting to different defensive coverages?

PL: “The one misconception is we don’t put more on the receivers. We put less on the receivers. We’ve taken the workload that we’ve given a quarterback, which is a seven-step process, and now all he does is he gets the signal, he IDs the coverage or the front depending on what we’re doing, and then he runs the play. That’s it. That’s all I want to do. What we do with the receivers is we have really given them a lot of freedom. We teach them how to chase space within the concept that we’re running. They’ll maneuver some routes based on where the coverage is so that the quarterback, all he has to do is go through his progressions, find the open guy and throw the football. We don’t have to read defenders, we don’t have to check coverage. We don’t have to ID the Mike, move the running back in the right spot.

“We’re allowing the receivers some freedom. Like the post (route) that we draw in the playbook has a certain angle to it. Out on the field, he might run it flatter or he might run it deeper based on where a defender is. So that’s why we don’t have a playbook. It’s very hard. I don’t want guys looking at a picture that, if we run that play 10 times, it won’t look like the picture 8 of them. I want them to run it the way we teach it.”

SECC: So you’re trying to maximize their ability to play instinctively, essentially.

PL: “You have said it better than most. This entire thing is based on maximizing their instincts. We want to get them to where they’re playing instinctively and they don’t have to think. I don’t want them thinking. As soon as it becomes instinctive, it goes from a play we’re putting in to a play we’re going to run. And that play goes onto the play list. We actually grade players on how instinctive they are, from 1 to 4. One being completely instinctive they can do the stuff in their sleep, and so on down the list. And I’m constantly reevaluating our players, and asking our position coaches to do the same, so that we have an idea as to how far they’re progressing. Because we don’t want to put a guy on the field that’s not a 1.”

SECC: Watching the offense practice earlier this week, it seems like the whole team was moving quickly. Given the bowl ban and other NCAA distractions, how do you think they’ve handled going about their business this spring?

PL: “I think it’s a pretty mature group. The attitude is control what you can control, and that’s winning football games. We have focused on putting the offense in on the field. The priority and focus on being good people, character people, being involved in the community, the character development that goes on here — none of that has changed. It’s continued. I’m just impressed that they’ve continued to focus on that. Those are really the only two things we verbalize around here.”

READ MORE: Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson poised to rally new-look Rebels in 2017

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Alec Shirkey – SEC Country


Father of Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson discusses son’s future, Hugh Freeze, and ‘gutless’ Houston Nutt

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Amid the off-field circus that has engulfed Ole Miss football over the last several months, and the last 48 hours in particular, the father of prized Rebels quarterback Shea Patterson displayed a striking amount of composure and resolve Friday night.

That’s when Sean Patterson Sr. spoke with SEC Country about a bevy of topics affecting his son’s college program, including the resignation of Hugh Freeze, the brutally timed Houston Nutt lawsuit, and the mindset of the players caught in this mess just days before fall camp is set to begin.

But the most important insight gleaned from this conversation — and perhaps the one that matters most to Ole Miss fans — was the simple message Patterson shared about his 5-star son.

“As far as our family and everything else is concerned, we support the university. Shea’s not going anywhere,” he told SEC Country.

Yes, Patterson is staying. His teammates, the school and Rebels supporters everywhere can breathe a big sigh of relief.

Freeze may be gone — his exit hastened by female escort-related circumstances that were startling to everyone — but the end result of this months-long imbroglio was not so surprising.

Patterson noted that many players were “very sad” to lose their coach, despite the allegations against him, and he believes the NCAA would have eventually forced him out. He also expressed displeasure toward many of those in the media who, in his eyes, seemingly wanted to see Freeze lose his job.

“Coach Freeze, he loves and cares for these kids,” the elder Patterson said. “Enough’s enough. He’s going to move on with his life. He leaves behind a bunch of people and a bunch of kids that will always care for him, no matter what anyone says. Because who really knows the truth? Who really knows?”

When it comes to Nutt, the former Ole Miss coach whose quest for vengeance became the catalyst for his successor’s demise, Patterson was not so forgiving.

In fact, he said the only thing to really upset him in the last 18 months was Nutt’s media days sabotage. His lawsuit became public knowledge one day before Ole Miss took the stage at SEC Media Days, and as a result shifted most media focus away from the school’s three player representatives: Shea Patterson, Javon Patterson and Breeland Speaks.

“Just because he has a grudge or he has a problem with a coach, he couldn’t wait another few days to go after that guy? He had to get his moment in the sun because he doesn’t have it any more,” Patterson said. “Whether the suit was good or not, that’s not the issue. It’s always the kids who are forgotten. Not one thought was given to them. I’ve coached for 25 years. No way would I ever want to spoil a kid’s moment in the sun.

“It was gutless. It ruined three kids’ days.”

For almost the entirety of the Rebels’ knock-down, drag-out NCAA investigation, however, the entire Patterson family has handled the twists and turns with remarkable poise. They’d have every right to feel angry, confused or hurt by the turn of events that has left Shea Patterson and older brother Sean Jr. — an off-field member of Freeze’s staff — in an incredibly difficult situation.

But the Pattersons see a silver lining: It’s a huge chance for Shea and his teammates to prove the outside world wrong in the face of especially trying circumstances.

The scandal has taken all attention away from the Ole Miss players, he said, as it did in the case of Nutt’s lawsuit. The bowl ban and the sudden departure of Freeze have created rock-bottom expectations for the squad in 2017; the media predicted Ole Miss will finish seventh in the SEC West last week before Freeze’s phone usage came to light.

And yet, some around the program feel like they could surprise this fall. Patterson, Van Jefferson and A.J. Brown highlight what should be a fairly dynamic offense under new coordinator Phil Longo, whose Air Raid system put up huge numbers at Sam Houston State. Defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff is a respected coach who can improve a defense that seriously stumbled last season.

Patterson and the rest of the 2016 signing class are “locked in,” Patterson Sr. said, and they’re looking at 2017 as a challenge. Chances are, it’ll be the biggest football trial they’ll ever face.

“In the long run, it’ll make them stronger. It’ll make them tougher mentally,” he said. “During this whole process, we forget this is a kid’s game. That’s what it should be. I think you’ll see it come back to where it’s a manageable situation. It’s unmanageable right now. The [NCAA] enforcement is pretty much, ‘Who do we want?’ It’s not across the board.”

With Freeze gone, the Ole Miss community is awaiting closure more eagerly than ever. Until the school meets with the Committee on Infractions this fall, when the NCAA will determine a final punishment, that won’t really happen.

Recruiting efforts likely will continue to suffer (3-star CB Jaylin Williams has de-committed), and fans may find it hard to not view 2017 as a lost season.

All Ole Miss can do is focus on the game. And for the Pattersons, the Sept. 2 opener vs. South Alabama can’t come soon enough.

“We’re ready to play some football,” Patterson Sr. said.

RELATED: Matt Luke has simple message to Rebels in first team meeting as head coach

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Alec Shirkey – SEC Country


Live updates: Nick Saban discusses Alabama’s first scrimmage of fall camp

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — After being among the last teams to report for training camp, the University of Alabama football team held its first scrimmage of fall at Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday afternoon.

The scrimmage was closed, but Nick Saban addressed reporters afterward. Here’s some of what he said:

• A lot of guys got work today, but being inside so much the past few days due to rain has limited practice reps.

• “I think we can have a really, really good team.” Some guys played really, really well. Need to build on that.

• Punter JK Scott was fantastic. Kicking game needs some work. Have to develop confidence in that area. It’s not just the kicker, it’s the whole operation.

• We want every position to compete. It’s not one versus the other, it’s all about our team. If anyone gets emotional, you have no control about what happen. We want everyone to compete, but not lose their discipline and poise.

• RB Josh Jacobs (hamstring) was held out, might be out a few days. RB Najee Harris has a slight pull, will probably be back on Monday.

• Offense didn’t have a lot of rhythm, wasn’t consistent. Kind of one of those days, but a lot of good things to build in.

• We have some good players in the secondary — we’re trying to get them in the right spots and develop depth. It’s always good when you have guys with experience.

• Offensive line: Freshmen Leatherwood and Wills have done well in practice. They’re two guys who are probably going to be counted on to contribute this season.

• We had a couple of young guys who went completely rat-trap (Saban’s term for being overwhelmed) and couldn’t even get lined up. That’s part of it.

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Christopher Walsh – SEC Country