What does new OC Graham Harrell mean for USC football?

GREEN BAY, WI - CIRCA 2011: In this handout image provided by the NFL, Graham Harrell of the Green Bay Packers poses for his NFL headshot circa 2011 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by NFL via Getty Images)
GREEN BAY, WI - CIRCA 2011: In this handout image provided by the NFL, Graham Harrell of the Green Bay Packers poses for his NFL headshot circa 2011 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. (Photo by NFL via Getty Images) /

What is USC football getting by hiring Graham Harrell as the new offensive coordinator? The Trojans are embracing the Air Raid, and that’s a good thing.

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On Monday, USC football reportedly secured the services of North Texas’ Graham Harrell to become the next Trojan offensive coordinator.

Harrell has big shoes to fill, taking over the post briefly filled by Kliff Kingsbury this December. Fortunately for the Trojans, he appears to be just the man for the job. After all, he is Kliff Kingsbury-lite (or Kliff Kingsbury 2.0, depending on how full your glass is).

Kingsbury was a record-setting quarterback at Texas Tech. So was Harrell.

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Kingsbury had a five-year career as a backup in the NFL before joining the coach ranks. Harrell’s was just four years, but still.

Kingsbury rose quickly from offensive quality control coach at Houston to offensive coordinator at Texas A&M. It took just two years of coaching before Harrell was tapped as the OC at North Texas.

The parallels are undeniable, both in the past, and going forward. In theory, everything that Kingsbury would have brought to the Trojans, Harrell will as well.

The transition to the Air Raid offense is a necessary one. For too long, USC tried to do a little bit of everything, but they fell into the classic pitfall, becoming a jack of all trades, but master of none.

Harrell learned the Air Raid under Mike Leach. He understood it as a player and has had five years of experience coaching in the system. Most importantly, he spent three years as the offensive coordinator and primary playcaller for North Texas.


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His resume may not be long, but his relevant experience putting together gameplans and then implementing them in games is already a lot more proven than Tee Martin’s was when he was promoted to offensive coordinator.

Philosophically, Harrell looks like the right antidote for USC’s offensive woes. He goes uptempo to put the defense on its heels. His passing concepts are simple and designed to make it easier for players to do their jobs. And those concepts are tailored to the strengths of the personnel. When North Texas didn’t have the personnel necessary to run a full-fledged Air Raid in 2016, they leaned more on the run. The next year, when they had more of the players they needed, they exploded with a massively productive passing offense.

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In that sense, Trojan fans have no reason to fear the abandonment of the run, considering the playmakers USC has available at running back. In fact, North Texas had more rushing attempts, yards and touchdowns in 2018 than the Trojans.

When it comes to the quarterback, Harrell’s development of North Texas’ Mason Fine has been impressive. Fine posted a quarterback rating of 113.74 as a freshman in 2016 while throwing six touchdowns to five interceptions. In 2017, he tossed 31 touchdowns with 15 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 144.17. He replicated that with 27 touchdowns and just five interceptions and a quarterback rating of 148.41 in 2018.

Whether he chooses JT Daniels, Jack Sears or Matt Fink to be his quarterback, Harrell should have a positive impact on the position.

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Unfortunately, the difference between Harrell and Kingsbury is in the odds. With Kingsbury, it felt as though USC had a certain guarantee of offensive success. With Harrell, there is great possibility, but little guarantee. While Kingsbury was a proven offensive mind, this is Harrell’s big chance to run the show, free of the safety net provided by Leach or North Texas head coach Seth Littrell.

For all intents and purposes, Harrell is now where Kingsbury was when he took the Texas A&M offensive coordinator gig in 2012. Many have labeled him a rising star. (Remember, that was the assessment of Martin before he stepped into USC’s OC role.) The next step is proving them right, as Kingsbury did.

If there’s another issue with the hiring of Harrell, it’s this: Had the Trojans sealed the deal on this two weeks ago, shortly after Kingsbury’s departure, they might have been able to avoid losing five-star athlete Bru McCoy as well as wide receivers Trevon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebhe to the transfer portal.

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While the timing of the hire may warrant a shake of the head, Harrell is a positive move for USC. It is arguably the best hire Clay Helton could have made to salvage the Kingsbury disaster.

In getting Harrell, the Trojans are making a statement about being committed to transitioning to the Air Raid. Commitment to a defined system is a step in the right direction.