OXFORD, Mississippi — The last time the Air Raid offense was paired with a dynamic, dual-threat quarterback in the SEC, it sent shock waves throughout the conference.
Texas A&M went 11-2, and Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy.
Could Ole Miss’ new offensive coordinator, Phil Longo — an Air Raid disciple — and budding star quarterback Shea Patterson — a Johnny Football clone — replicate that success?
“It could be a match made in heaven,” Texas Tech coach Kliff Kingsbury said.
Kingsbury would know. He was the offensive coordinator for Manziel in 2012, when the Aggies cannonballed into the SEC, then beat Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl.
The only problem is Ole Miss won’t be playing in any bowl game next season. The SEC’s most exciting football could come from the one school with nothing at stake because of a self-imposed bowl ban. But the Rebels will still be must-see TV because the combination of Patterson and Longo should be one of the most explosive in college football.
Longo’s offensive roots began elsewhere.
In his early coaching days, Longo rummaged through the great offenses developed by the likes of LaVell Edwards, Norm Chow and Joe Tiller and put different parts of them together. It left Longo with a hodgepodge of schemes that left him unfulfilled.
A game-film hound, Longo spent countless hours in the 1990s watching different games he taped on his VCR. One team’s offense stood out to him: Kentucky. Hal Mumme was the head coach, and Mike Leach was the offensive coordinator.
“It was obscure, and it was not mainstream at all,” Longo said. “When I came across this Kentucky stuff, it just made perfect sense to me.”
So one spring, Longo — a high school coach in New Jersey at the time — got into his Toyota 4Runner and made the trek to Lexington for a clinic. He couldn’t persuade one of his assistant coaches to join him and didn’t have enough money for a hotel, so he slept in his car and showered at “a couple of different interesting places.” The objective: pick Leach’s brain. By the time he left, he found his new offensive identity in the Air Raid.
“I left there believing that this makes a lot more sense to me than anything that I’d seen or evaluated or talked to people about,” Longo said. “So I just made the decision then that I’m going to master this and see how it goes.”
For the next 18 years, Longo took it to every level he coached, which is just about every level of college football in existence. After his high school stint in New Jersey, he made stops in Division III (William Paterson University), Division II (Minnesota-Duluth and Slippery Rock), the FCS (La Salle, Southern Illinois, Youngstown State and Sam Houston State) and even junior college. Wherever Longo went, his offenses piled up yards and points and set records.
His latest stint — as Sam Houston State’s offensive coordinator — opened eyes. The Bearkats made consecutive appearances in the FCS semifinals in Longo’s first two seasons there. In 2016, his final season there, quarterback Jeremiah Briscoe threw a nation’s-best 57 touchdowns and won the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the top offensive player in the FCS.
Why has Longo been successful?
“He does a good job of lots of different personnel, lots of different formations,” Kingsbury said. “He’ll mix in the tempo, he does a good job of being creative with play-action stuff, the RPO (run-pass option). His quarterbacks are well-trained on that, when to throw, when not to throw, when to hand it off. You can just tell it’s a well-oiled machine.”
Kingsbury and Leach — both of whom Longo visits annually — described Longo as dedicated.
“He’s a real focused student of the game,” Leach said. “Most waking hours, football is right on the surface.”
Now, after canvassing the country at multiple levels, Longo gets to try his hand in the SEC. Don’t expect his offense to change just because he’ll be going up against elite defensive talent, though.
“The biggest thing is I learned that the X’s and O’s don’t change,” Longo said. “Football is football. … We didn’t run plays at a lower level … just because we could get away with it. If it didn’t work against the best team in the league, then we didn’t run it.”
Longo took the job at Ole Miss because he believed in Hugh Freeze. But he’d be lying if he told you Patterson didn’t play a role in the decision.
What college offensive coordinator wouldn’t want to work with one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in college football the next two years? If Longo was on the fence, the tape from last year’s Texas A&M game might have been enough to sell him on Oxford, Mississippi.
It was Patterson’s collegiate debut. He and Freeze had agreed to pull his redshirt when Chad Kelly suffered a season-ending knee injury with three games remaining, and his first start just so happened to come at Kyle Field in front of over 100,000 crazed Aggies fans. To this day, he doesn’t remember taking the first snap.
“It was a blur,” Patterson said.
But once he settled in, the true freshman started to take the game over. He was running around the field making plays off sheer athleticism and talent — that’s where the Manziel comparisons really took off — and by the time it was over, he had led Ole Miss back from a 21-6 halftime deficit and secured the win 29-28.
“I think the A&M success is a true barometer of what he’s capable of doing athletically,” Longo said. “Because he went into that game — and I don’t know this from talking to him, but I just know it from experience and coaching guys in that situation — you go into that game with no fear because you’ve got nothing to lose and with very little preparation. And you play on instinct and athletic ability. You saw that.
“But there’s more to being a successful quarterback than just being a good athlete. Now he has spring ball. He has the entire summer. He’ll be well-prepared when the season comes.”