He wasted no time showing off the beauty of 4 Verticals to the nearly 11,000 crimson partisans watching at Albi Stadium. On the third play of the game, facing third-and-long, Tuel took the snap in shotgun formation, glanced right during a three-step drop, and then fired deep to Marquess Wilson streaking down the left sideline. And just like that, the first TD of the Leach Era was on the board.
In all, the Cougs ran 4 Verticals no fewer than a dozen times over the course of the day.
Well documented over the years in print, online and by Leach himself, here’s how it works. Four receivers divide the field into four equal sections that stretch from the line of scrimmage on down the field. For defenses aligned in one-, two- or three-deep coverage, it’s very problematic. Leach quips in his book that it’s basically the “everybody go deep” call from when you were a kid. But Leach, naturally, has put a couple of key twists into it.
First, he doesn’t have his receivers run deep and then look up. He has them looking for the ball periodically throughout their route – all without breaking stride. “The upside is that our QB could hit his receiver at any point, starting from right on the line of scrimmage all the way to 35 yards downfield,” Leach writes in Swing Your Sword. “Somewhere along that path he’s bound to be open. And that’s just one guy. Multiply that by four. Then for good measure we’d stick a back underneath and release him right or left or through the line by the center and tell him to ‘Get open!’ after we’d blown the top of their coverage.”
The other twist in Leach’s version of the 4 verticals is throwing the ball short, behind the receiver. That’s not what happened on the Tuel-to-Wilson play at the start of Saturday’s scrimmage, because it wasn’t needed given the defensive back’s positioning. But the advantage of throwing short comes into play often. When a defensive back turns his back to the quarterback in order to keep up with the streaking receiver, that logically means he can’t see the quarterback. But the receiver is looking frequently at the quarterback – a quarterback he knows has been drilled to throw the ball into open space almost anywhere along the route. So if the DB has his back turned and is overplaying the receiver deep, Leach trains his QBs to “throw the ball at the receiver’s ass cheek away from coverage.”
Michael Crabtree’s famous game-winning TD catch vs. Texas in 2008 offers a prime example.
Another tenet of Leach’s 4 Verticals is a simple law of physics: No human can run farther than 35 yards in the time the typical major-college quarterback has to get set and throw a pass before protection breaks down.
So while 4 Verticals technically means the corridors run from the line of scrimmage to the end zone, the Air Raid says they run from the line of scrimmage to 35 yards out. If you look at the tape of the 84-yard- Tuel-to-Wilson scoring TD you’ll see that Wilson catches the ball somewhere around 30 yards downfield.
DENNIS SIMMONS, WHO COACHES Wilson and the rest of the Cougars’ outside receivers, told CF.C’s Braulio Perez last week that his troops are acclimating well to the Air Raid. Saturday’s aerial circus reinforced his point.
“You know, honestly (they’ve taken to the Air Raid) a lot better then I initially thought they would,” Simmons said. “Obviously all these kids are athletically gifted and have the tools we were looking for when we came in. The 15-days of spring have been a great thing for us because we’re able to get on the same page as the quarterbacks as far as what we’re doing and what they’re looking at.
“We have tall, athletic, and rangy kids that can stretch the field,” Simmons added. “Obviously it’s kind of tailor made for the personnel that we have.”
Inside receivers coach Eric Morris also told CF.C last week that his crew has made nice strides this spring – but there’s huge room for growth.
“It’s a process and we’re not even close to where we need to be,” Morris said. “As long as every day we keep getting better then I’m going to be happy. It’ll be a long summer program and long two-a-days program where hopefully by the end we’ll be happy with the product.”
Whether playing outside or inside receiver, the ability to execute in the 4 Verticals is critical to individual and team success -- a defense has to be stretched for the underneath stuff to work to its full potential. In order for the 4 Verticals play to be effective, the receivers and quarterback have to know exactly what each is thinking and doing.
“The receiver runs the route and looks to the quarterback as the defender adjusts,” Leach says in his book. “The receiver keeps running. The quarterback decides when and where to throw the ball. On the throw, the receiver adjusts to the ball. If the receiver stops or settles because he guesses, then he is wrong. If the ball is thrown to the wrong place, where there is no space, then the quarterback is wrong. Where the ball is caught is based upon how the defender chooses to play the route. Simple stated: Throw it where they are not. The execution of this requires months and even years of practice. However, the space itself if always there, and it’s impossible for the defense to cover.”
Statistically speaking at least, it would seem the Cougs are adjusting well to the new passing attack. In four scrimmages this spring, Jeff Tuel completed 60 percent of his 118 pass attempts for 833 yards, 10 TDs and 5 INTs. With Connor Halliday being limited this spring, backup David Gilbertson completed 67 percent of his 60 attempts for 470 yards, 3 TDs and 2 INTs.
In practices, the ups and downs of the learning curve have been apparent. Tuel and the wideouts have at times struggled getting into a consistent rhythm. But when they are clicking, as Saturday’s scrimmage showed, the defense has a bucket full of trouble staring them in the face.
Seventeen different players caught passes in the scrimmage – 10 receivers and seven running backs. Those numbers are inflated compared to a regular game – but not by a ton. At Texas Tech it wasn’t uncommon for 10 to 14 players to make catches in one game.
“It gives us all confidence because it shows that not just one receiver is going to take over the show,” Wilson said of the new offense last week. “The ball’s going to be spread around evenly and everyone is going to have the opportunity to catch the ball and get their name out there.”
One of the surprise stories of the Cougars’ spring season was the work of walk-on outside receiver Drew Loftus, a second-year freshman who comes to the Cougs after a season at Hawaii. He looks to join Marquess Wilson and Dominique Williams as true home-run targets. Loftus was a multi-sport athlete at Kennewick High, lettering three times each in football and baseball and twice in basketball. In football he variously played quarterback, receiver, defensive back, punter and punt returner. As a senior, he passed for nearly 1,400 yards and rushed for more than 1,100, and was named Associated Press Class 3A all-state. Over his sophomore and junior seasons he caught a collective 69 passes and 12 TDs. He was also a two-time all-conference outfielder.