How Brian Kelly, LSU football are approaching Mississippi State's Air Raid attack
But the accomplished first-year LSU coach has always had great respect for the charismatic coach at Mississippi State, all the way back to his days at Grand Valley State and Leach's time at Iowa Wesleyan in the early 1990s.
"We share a lot of acquaintances in the business itself," Kelly said.
It's why Kelly understands the challenge his Tigers (1-1) face in preparing for Saturday (5 p.m., ESPN) – when Mississippi State (2-0) travels to Baton Rouge – won't be easy.
The Bulldogs feature a unique offensive attack – the Air Raid offense. It's an uptempo assault that's heavily reliant on its quarterback's accuracy and ability to diagnose a defense. And it's often run with four and five wide receiver formations.
"The precision of this scheme, the way it is set up, if you are not taking care of your assignment and doing your job, you're going to get exposed," Kelly said.
It's a unique attack, but Kelly doesn't believe it's complex, adding that Leach's offense is based only on four-to-six offensive concepts. Because of that, he wants to make sure LSU's preparation for it doesn't become overly obscure.
"If you get too cute on defense, that's where you get exposed," Kelly said. "Or you try to do one thing to take it away. If you play too much man (coverage). If you play too much three-man rush. If you try to be one-dimensional defensively, that's where you get in trouble."
But simple doesn't mean easy. The Air Raid is especially difficult to stop when the quarterback is on the same page with his teammates, given how reliant the scheme is on chemistry, precision and pace.
It makes having veterans who are familiar with running the system even more important. And Mississippi State has that in spades.
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It all starts with third-year starting quarterback Will Rogers, who leads the SEC in passing yards with 763 (nearly 100 more than Georgia's Stetson Bennett in second), completions (77), pass attempts (97) and completion percentage (78.6%) this season after he was first in the conference in every category but passing yards last year.
Around him, the Bulldogs brought back six players that had more than 25 catches last year and all but one starter on the offensive line came into this season with at least two years of starting experience.
"They're going to run what they run and they just going to run it better than you can defend it in three days of preparation," Kelly said.
Varying their looks schematically and tackling well are Kelly's keys to combating Mississippi State's attack. Executing both aspects of the game plan requires improved discipline and attention to detail, something the Tigers struggled with defensively ‒ especially on third down – against Florida State two weeks ago.
"Some of our goals (this week) are to be as disciplined as possible," LSU defensive end Sai'vion Jones said. "You can't go in there and not be disciplined, not have good eyes (and) have feet that are bad with a team like that."
All three levels of the Tigers' defense will be tested, but none so as often as the secondary. Given the volume and pace Mississippi State throws the ball, LSU will be in nickel and dime packages (five and six defensive back formations) and because of that must vastly improve its communication from the FSU game.
According to Kelly, flipping Greg Brooks and Jay Ward – from nickel cornerback to safety and vice verse – improved LSU's communication at the back.
"Understanding what we're supposed to do in the back-end, understanding the calls. I feel like we're slowly but surely coming together," LSU cornerback Mekhi Garner said.
But that change will be tested against a superior opponent this week.
"You better tackle," Kelly said. "You better have a really good plan on some of the things they really like to do, or you're going to get exposed."
Koki Riley covers LSU sports for The Daily Advertiser and the USA TODAY Sports South Region. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @KokiRiley.