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.”