This week, the WeAreSC staff shares their thoughts on the reported impending hire of North Texas’ Graham Harrell, who looks to be headed to USC as the Trojans’ newest offensive coordinator.
I’m all for taking a shot on a guy who clearly is on an upward trajectory in the coaching ranks. There is a palpable buzz about Harrell in the coaching community and you know he’ll be motivated to prove himself at this level of college football. I also think this is a nice win for Clay Helton. He obviously wanted to move to this style of offense and did a great job in grabbing his No. 1 target in Kliff Kingsbury. When that didn’t work out, Harrell was probably the next best guy out there and USC landed him. It might have taken a while to fill the position, but I don’t think this was settling for anything, and I appreciate the desire to shoot another shot at a successful Air Raid coach, rather than go with another recycled name who has been around forever.
The thing I’m looking forward to the most with Harrell is how he incorporates the running backs. It’s easy and obvious (and true) to focus on how much this offense should help the wide receivers. But Harrell (and other good Air Raid coaches) have turned talented running backs into dominant players in this system, both with the ability to let them catch passes in space as well as run at smaller fronts and uncrowded boxes. If Stephen Carr is fully healthy next season, he could be someone who benefits as much as anybody from this system.
I think you can look at it this way. First, Clay Helton was obviously adamant about switching to the Air Raid offense, and he wanted somebody who knew what they were doing running it. I suppose if you couldn’t keep Kliff Kingsbury, hiring Graham Harrell, a member of the Kingsbury coaching tree, could satisfy that need. Secondly, I think that the Harrell hiring turns a real negative situation – namely the offense and the rudderless quagmire it had become – into a more positive direction for no other reasons than the Trojans’ offensive players and the Trojans fans know that things are moving forward. The hiring should dim the negative spotlight on the program considerably for the moment. Lastly, foundational plans for spring practice can now move forward, and there will be some curiosity and scrutiny regarding how the Air Raid offense affects the various positions on offense. If there is an open quarterback competition and it isn’t just a dog and pony show, it will make March and April that much more interesting.
Clay got his man…possibly last man standing but that’s ok. Harrell’s credentials and bona fides are for real as an “Air Raid” disciple. He must be thrilled and excited with this opportunity to show a national audience just what he can do with an offense. His chops at North Texas (UNT) were pretty good as offensive coordinator competing in the Conference USA (btw, which is the same conference as Western Kentucky, so that connection just keeps on giving). The USC offense is going to have to get used to a very different offense from whatever we saw last season. For that I’m grateful. This is not a power offense but then neither were we last season and frankly for the past several seasons. So, with that in mind, why not light it up? Score lots of points and try to avoid too many 3rd and short or short yardage red zone conversion attempts (more later).
Harrell coached all of his games on turf last season so he’ll have to get an Air Raid offense to work on natural grass as one overlooked point of adjustment. It is noteworthy that UNT was 38 percent on third down conversions and 42 percent on fourth down. This compares to USC’s 32 percent and 53 percent, respectively. Harrell coached against one ranked team last year in the New Mexico Bowl against Utah State (ranked No. 22) losing 52-13 with Utah State’s Jalen Greene (yes, that Jalen Greene) catching six passes, one for a touchdown. However, the regular schedule gave UNT ample opportunity to produce on the field, with Harrell’s offensive scheme generating 87 percent effectiveness in the red zone, given 52 scoring opportunities and producing 33 touchdowns and 19 field goals, which compares favorably to our 80 percent. However, of course, we play a much stouter schedule than UNT (e.g. Liberty, Rice, Incarnate Word) so coach Harrell will need some help from those on staff with more experience with our type of schedule.
So, at a minimum what does this all mean then?
- Transform our offense from last year’s mixed bag to a modified Air Raid offense
- Teach coaches and players what that means and looks like
- Produce points, extend drives and Red Zone conversions while establishing the offensive identity that Helton now wants
- Convince players, coaches, recruits and fans that this is now our winning offensive formula for the foreseeable future
First, can Harrell help USC get its athletes in space on a mismatched defender? USC’s third-best receiver (Vaughns? Pittman? Amon-Ra?) is going to be better than the third-best cover guy for the other team. USC’s backs are effective pass catchers who can create problems in the passing game for just about any opposing linebacker. One of the frustrating things in recent years is USC’s inability to exploit favorable matchups. Can Harrell consistently get good athletes in space against lesser defenders? It’s one of the primary jobs of an offensive coordinator. If he can do this and turn Daniels or Sears into point guards on the field, this offense can have success.
Second, can Harrell help protect a questionable offensive line? I like Tim Drevno. I think he will help this offensive line. But it’s obviously still a giant question mark. To some extent, Mike Leach’s system accomplishes this goal by spreading the field and getting rid of the ball quickly, and he uses wide line splits to get the outside rushers farther from the QB. I’m curious to see whether Harrell follows his mentor’s blueprint. But in addition, when you have a questionable offensive line, you have to be a good screen and draw team. USC hasn’t been a good screen and draw team for years. USC must be able to mix it up; they must be able to keep opposing pass rushers guessing.