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O/NSO: Change is in the air edition

The Obvious: Former North Texas offensive coordinator Graham Harrell has officially accepted the position of offensive coordinator for the USC Trojans and will bring with him his version of the aerial circus passing attack also known as the Air Raid, a strategy that is a radical change from the ground legacy of the “Power-I formation” of yesteryear.

The Not So Obvious: Forget about “Where have you gone, Mrs. Robinson?” “Where have you gone Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White, and Marcus Allen, Trojan fans turn their lonely eyes to you?” They say that winning cures everything, and Clay Helton (photo above) is hoping that the hiring of Graham Harrell, 33-year-old Air Raid savant, not only returns a smile to the faces of agitated Trojans fans but saves his employment status in the process. The immediate challenge for the Trojans players, subjected to watching this curious evolution of selecting an offensive coordinator and new philosophy, will be learning the Air Raid playbook in time for spring practice, which has been announced as the first week of March and running through April 6. That’s right, learn that new Air Raid offense playbook within a month or as much as you can – players and coaches.

The Obvious: Clay Helton is banking on Graham Harrell and his Air Raid offense to be the antidote for an offensive that lost its way last season – especially in the second half of games.

The Not So Obvious: Regarding his new offensive coordinator, Helton said, “In our search for an offensive coordinator, we wanted someone who could take our offense to new heights and whose system fit our current personnel. An individual who knows both the pass and run games and is an aggressive play caller on game day. Also, someone who is a great teacher and who can develop quarterbacks to their full potential.

“We have found all these characteristics in Graham. In our study, I was so impressed with how he turned North Texas into one of the top offenses in the nation, combining an elite, highly-ranked passing game with a ground game that rushed for nearly 2,000 yards. He also did a terrific job developing Mason Fine into one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. We look forward to the future of our offense under Graham’s leadership.”

The Obvious: Graham Harrell is the son of highly successful Texas high school football coach Sam Harrell.

The Not So Obvious: It’s hard to go wrong on the surface level when the coach you hire is the son of a successful coach. Harrell’s dad, Sam, the head football coach at Ennis High in nearby Dallas, has led Ennis to three football state championships despite having to take time off from coaching to battle multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease in which the immune system attacks the central nervous system. So, you have to believe that dad has passed on some special qualities of toughness, grit, and determination to his son. If the apple does not fall far from the tree, the Trojans may have gotten a good one on the rise.

The Obvious: It’s not unusual for the son of a high school coach to play for his father.

The Not So Obvious: Graham Harrell was a star quarterback at Ennis High, playing for his father before going on to a record-setting career at Texas Tech and then on to the NFL’s Green Bay Packers. Without question, Graham would love to follow in his father’s footsteps in terms of success. Sam Harrell accumulated a coaching record of 153-51 at Ennis High, achieving 13 consecutive playoff appearances and winning Class 4A state championships in 2000, 2001 and 2004. Daddy’s overall record in 20 seasons as a head coach before his medical pause was 189-59.

The Obvious: When Kliff Kingsbury was hired by the Trojans, it was confirmed by Kingsbury that he would not only have full control of the offense, but the quarterback competition would be wide open during spring ball.

The Not So Obvious: The biggest future question: Will Harrell be given the same authority as Kingsbury? In other words, will the Trojans’ new quarterback coach also make the call on the 2019 starting quarterback after the completion of spring ball or training camp in August? Will Harrell change the pecking order of the current QB rotation of JT Daniels, Jack Sears, and Matt Fink? Intrigue, Intrigue, Intrigue.

The Obvious: There’s the theory that Trojan fans don’t care what offense the team runs as long as the team wins.

The Not So Obvious: Well, the above theory is about to be severely tested. The O/NSO will say that if this radical transformation works, Trojan fans will support it – up to a point. The Air Raid figures to work against the average and below average defensive teams of the Pac-12, and it might work against the conference elite teams like Washington and Stanford, but Trojan teams are judged by how they fare against the likes of physical teams like Notre Dame, Ohio State, and Texas. Therein lies the rub.

The Obvious: Now that Clay Helton has named his offensive coordinator, most Trojan fans are just ready to move on, but those so-called experts are voicing their opinion of Helton’s move to the Air Raid offense.

The Not So Obvious: One respected analyst, ESPN’s Brock Huard, the former Washington quarterback great, believes the move to the Air Raid is not USC. Huard said, “No, I don’t like this fit at all. And it really has nothing to do with Kliff (Kingsbury) or Graham (Harrell) as coaches or players or human beings. I just don’t think USC has to run the Air Raid. This is USC, is it not? The bluest of the bluebloods out West. USC is one of the few schools in the Pac-12 that can select their kind of players and just have to try to recruit. Pick what system you want. The Air Raid is for Mike Leach up there in Pullman or down in Lubbock when you don’t have the kind of personnel that can’t go toe-for-toe (with other teams).

The Obvious: Pete Carroll is a former USC head football coach who someday will be in the College Football Hall of Fame.

The Not So Obvious: Adding to his above remarks regarding the Trojans switching to the Air Raid offense, Brock Huard added, “You realize when Pete Carroll, I was with Andy Staples and Jason Horowitz this morning, and Jason did his homework. When Pete Carroll was at USC and at his dynastic run from 2004 to 2010, he had 18 guys around the line of scrimmage drafted in the first three rounds – O-line and front 7. Eighteen drafted in those seven years. Since then, over the last eight, you had only eight guys drafted. You can build it. You should be able to build it and not play in a system from the outside in.” In fairness to Clay Helton, he realizes that the players he has recruited and by nature of his players development, his teams currently can’t go toe-to-toe with the elite of college football like Alabama, Ohio State, and Notre Dame.

The Obvious: With the departure of strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis to the Seattle Seahawks, Clay Helton continues his search for a new S&C coach.

The Not So Obvious: Asked about the departure of Lewis and the search for a new strength and conditioning coach, Clay Helton said, “I am happy for Ivan. It always has been his dream to coach in the NFL if it was with the right organization. He had turned down offers in the past, but the Seahawks organization was too good of an opportunity to pass up.  I want all our coaches and players to be able to fulfill their dreams. 

“Ivan’s replacement will be someone who can develop our players’ total body as well as design programs for their skill specific needs.  That programming should incorporate strength, conditioning, speed training, functional football movements, preventative injury exercises, flexibility, diet and sleep. That person will be forward thinking when it comes to the art of sports science and how it can help our players gain a competitive advantage. They should have the leadership skills and confidence to lead a group of 110 young men, being firm but fair and holding them accountable to their responsibilities. Someone who will coach them hard, but also develop relationships built on trust and honesty.  And someone who will establish toughness, discipline and teamwork that will carry over to the practice field and games.” 

The Obvious: There has been a great deal of controversary over the NCAA Transfer Portal rule.

The Not So Obvious: We know that former Trojan Bru McCoy, now attending classes at Texas after attending classes at USC, originally put his name in the Transfer Portal and now wide receivers Travon Sidney and Josh Imatorbhebhe, both of whom have been unable to work their way into more playing time, are looking to transfer. The key to remember here is just because you put your name in the Transfer Portal, it doesn’t mean that a transfer is a done deal. It’ll be interesting to see if Sidney and Imatorbhebhe follow through with transferring after talking with Graham Harrell – if Harrell actually talks to them. Neither Sidney nor Imatorbhebhe had been able to crack the Trojans’ rotation on a consistent basis for various reasons.  

The Obvious: Trojan fans have been awaiting to hear some sort of comment from Clay Helton regarding the Bru McCoy transfer to Texas.

The Not So Obvious: Helton finally released a statement saying, “Bru’s decision was personal to him. He is a fine young man who has a bright future and I wish him well.” Personal? At some point, we’ll all find out what personal means.

The Obvious: Clay Helton is well aware of the effects of the new NCAA Transfer Portal.

The Not So Obvious: Commenting on the new NCAA Transfer Portal option, Helton said, “Transferring has become more common in college football recently.  The new NCAA transfer portal has allowed student-athletes to more easily seek a new opportunity at another university.  The other day, there were 1,986 football players in the portal and 1,362 were Division I.  Everyone is experiencing attrition.  It is something that all head coaches have to manage when it comes to rosters and recruiting.”

The Obvious: By all accounts, former Trojans offensive tackle Chuma Edoga had an outstanding Senior Bowl and practice.

The Not So Obvious: Apparently something clicked for Chuma to execute noteworthy performances during those Senior Bowl practices and the game. Edoga was very inconsistent for the Trojans, and one could legitimately question his devotion to the game. However, after watching the Senior Bowl, the only conclusion the O/NSO can draw is that either Chuma knew his play-or-pay future was on the line (call it an attitude adjustment) in front of pro scouts or being back in the South was a comfort zone to him. Honestly, the O/NSO is happy for the guy if the motivation light turned on.

The Obvious: And finally, Viane Talamaivao was a physical offensive guard for the Trojans whose 2017 senior season was cut short due to a pectoral injury, and Chris Hawkins was safety for the Trojans who was a team captain for the 2017 Pac-12 champions.

The Not So Obvious: Viane and Chris, both of whom had brief NFL coffee stops, are returning to their cardinal and gold alma mater as graduate assistants. Both have the ability to be outstanding coaches of their respective positions. Welcome back and go get’em guys!

Greg Katz
Greg Katz

Now entering his 59th season of either writing, broadcasting, or just plain watching USC football, WeAreSC columnist Greg Katz began his affiliation with the website back in 2001, introducing his well-received O/NSO (The Obvious/The Not So Obvious) column and later adding his respected IMHO Sunday opinion and tidbits column. Greg, a former ESPN.com college football columnist covering USC, is also a member of the Football Writer's Association of America. He is also known in Southern California as a professional public address announcer, having called the the 1996 Rose Bowl Game between USC and Northwestern. Greg also holds a master's degree in athletic administration and was a former varsity high school coach of 27 years.

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