Longo says running will remain priority in Badgers' Air Raid
By STEVE MEGARGEE
MADISON, Wis. (AP) New Wisconsin offensive coordinator Phil Longo wants to put one idea to rest.
Just because Longo has a reputation as a quarterback-friendly coordinator because he used some form of the Air Raid offense at North Carolina and other stops doesn't mean Wisconsin is going to stop running the football.
"I'd be an idiot not to run the football here with the backfield that we have and the offensive line that we have," Longo said Thursday, two days after Wisconsin officially announced he joined new Badgers coach Luke Fickell's staff.
But Longo does acknowledge that Wisconsin's offense will have a new identity.
"We're going to be more diverse maybe than we've been here," Longo said. "We want to throw the ball probably more effectively, maybe even more rep-wise than we've done. But you really want to be effective in both."
That's pretty much what he accomplished at North Carolina, which had the most rushing yards per game and total yards passing of any Atlantic Coast Conference team during Longo's four seasons as offensive coordinator.
Wisconsin made itself a Big Ten contender because of its penchant for producing star running backs like Jonathan Taylor, Ron Dayne, Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon and James White. Longo's plan, he said, is to make sure the offense's top playmakers get the ball in space as much as possible, whether they be running backs or receivers.
"We really want to line up sideline to sideline and then we want to stretch and threaten a defense vertically, because in a perfect world you'd like to get all 11 defenders spread out throughout the field as far away from each other as possible," he said.
North Carolina threw the ball a little more than half of the time this season, but the Tar Heels ran on at least 55% of their snaps each of Longo's three previous seasons as coordinator. Wisconsin ran the ball at least 59.2% each of the last four seasons, including a high of 65.4% in 2021.
Wisconsin figures to return two quality experienced running backs in Braelon Allen and Chez Mellusi. Allen has rushed for over 1,200 yards each of the last two seasons.
"We emphasized here in the past building it big up front, running it downhill, having a big backfield, being physical," Longo said. "Those are things I think you need to win a championship, no matter what offense you're in. That part of it isn't going to change. We're just going to do it a little different."
North Carolina ranked in the top 25 in passing yards per game three of Longo's four seasons as offensive coordinator and was ranked 11th this year. Compare that to Wisconsin, which was 92nd or lower in that category seven straight seasons and was outside of the top 103 in five of those years.
"What we want to do is increase how effective we can be in the passing game so that defenses have to defend the full field and all five skill players," Longo said. "That's really the goal of the Air Raid here at Wisconsin."
Longo's arrival already is making an impact, too, helping Wisconsin attract the caliber of quarterbacks the Badgers have rarely landed in the past.
Tanner Mordecai, SMU's career leader in touchdown passes, announced on social media last week that he's transferring to Wisconsin. Nick Evers, a former Oklahoma reserve and four-star recruit, also indicated he's joining the Badgers. (Former starting QB Graham Mertz entered the transfer portal after Fickell was hired and will play at Florida next season.)
Longo said he looks forward to working with Fickell, after they nearly joined forces several years ago at Cincinnati. Longo turned down the opportunity to become Cincinnati's offensive coordinator, instead taking the position on Hugh Freeze's Mississippi staff - but Longo and Fickell continued to talk regularly.
"I felt like it was a mistake not working with him," Longo said. "So when I got the opportunity to come and work with him this time, I wasn't going to pass it up. And then on top of it, it's at Wisconsin of all places. It's a double positive for me."
More AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://twitter.com/AP-Top25
Updated January 5, 2023