USC's circuitous route to an offensive coordinator hire landed a rising star
One word to summarize USC football's hire of Graham Harrell, the best possible outcome of a volatile offensive coordinator search? Fine.
That's not a tepid reception to Clay Helton tabbing a young, rising star in Harrell. As the conclusion of a coaching search that lasted more than two months, and included the intervention of multiple NFL franchises, USC made one of the best coordinator hires of the 2018-19 carousel. Harrell had already spurned one Power 5 job with a national championship-winning coach in North Carolina's Mack Brown.
Rather, fine articulates the qualities USC can expect from its new offensive coordinator, as detailed by North Texas quarterback Mason Fine.
"I work a lot with coach Harrell on the game plan we develop. We communicate a lot and have a great relationship," Fine said in an August 2018 interview. "So if we have a play I don't like, I'll tell coach Harrell and we won't call it. He gives me a lot of advice, lessons on the simple stuff to be successful and incorporate into everything I do."
Fine credited "repetition... so that once I'm on the football field, it's just natural and like second nature."
Harrell worked as North Texas quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator each of the previous three seasons, overseeing one of the most dramatic turnarounds in college football. The apex came in 2017, with the Mean Green winning Conference USA's West division and a program-record nine games, behind the record-setting play of then-sophomore Fine.
North Texas climbed from No. 124 in FBS in scoring offense one year prior to Harrell's arrival as part of head coach Seth Littrell's staff, to No. 15 in Harrell's second season at UNT. The Mean Green's national rank dipped slightly in 2018, but their scoring output actually increased by a point.
It's not difficult to look at Fine's individual numbers and see the progression, either. He threw six touchdowns against five interceptions as a freshman after stepping into the starting role midway through the campaign. His breakout came in 2017 with 31 touchdowns and 15 interceptions. Last year, Fine threw for 27 touchdowns with just five picks.
Harrell's handiwork at North Texas should translate seamlessly to the personnel and situation he inherits at USC. The development to which Fine credits the coach should be a boon to JT Daniels, the 5-star recruit-turned-first-year starting quarterback who showed flashes of brilliance in 2018.
UNT's system divvied pass-catching opportunities evenly among a talented corps of receivers. In 2017, receivers Turner Smiley, Rico Bussey Jr., Jalen Guyton, and Michael Lawrence caught from 35 to 62 passes for 623 to 819 yards. Last season, Lawrence, Jaelon Darden, Guy and Bussey caught from 32 to 68 passes for 433 to 1,017 yards.
With Michael Pittman Jr. holding off on the NFL for a year, the USC wide receiving corps should be the most talented in the Pac-12. Distributing touches among a group that features Pittman, Velus Jones, Tyler Vaughns and adept pass-catching running back Stephen Carr seems the most logical approach for immediate success at USC.
Of course, a concern inherent when USC initially hired another air-raid disciple, Kliff Kingsbury, comes with the former Texas Tech quarterback Harrell, as well. USC has long been a program noted for its balance of the run and pass, emphasizing the former. Helton himself repeated a mantra in 2018 that never came to fruition: Run to set up the pass.
Harrell played in the almost pass-exclusive version of the air raid Mike Leach favors -- and which netted 11 wins at Washington State this past season -- and Harrell coached receivers in the Leach scheme for two years before arriving in Denton.
But Harrell got his start in coaching one year after quarterbacking the best team in Texas Tech history, working as a QC assistant for Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State with Gunter Brewer as offensive coordinator. Brewer currently works as wide receivers coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, last year's Super Bowl winner with former collegiate air-raid quarterback Nick Foles running the offense.
Coaches tend to pick up a little something from every stop in their career. While the multiple-wide receiver sets and aggressive passing tactics of the classic air raid are evident in Harrell's history, he has three teams with running backs who posted about 1,200 yards, and a shade below 1,000 twice. It's a statistic more comparable to that 2009 Oklahoma State team, with 1,200-yard rusher Keith Toston, than Washington State's use of running backs primarily as pass catchers.
A former USC head coach and celebrated offensive play-caller in his own right, FAU head coach Lane Kiffin, told the Sun-Sentinel in 2017 the Harrell-coordinated offense was "the most balanced we played all year."
For an exciting style that maximizes USC's current potential, and a proven ability to adapt, the Trojans could not have scored a more fine hire than Harrell.
(Top photo courtesy of @CoachHarrellUNT)