T-Time: Graham Harrell can save USC’s offense

The Longhorns had committed a cardinal sin, despite seizing a late fourth-quarter lead. They left Texas Tech’s offense with an eternity of time — 89 seconds to be precise. 

And so, Texas Tech quarterback Graham Harrell went to work. An eight-yard completion. A five-yard checkdown. An 11-yard pass here. A 10-yard gain there. As methodical as Sherman’s March, the Red Raiders had driven deep into Longhorn territory with just eight seconds to go. Everyone in the stadium and their grandmas at home expected a heave into the end zone. Four-verticals is the foundation of head coach Mike Leach’s offense, after all. But where the rest zigged, the Red Raiders zagged. 

On 2nd-and-10 from the Texas 28-yard line, Harrell launched a pass to All-American receiver Michael Crabtree about five yards short of the end zone. Harrell’s trust in Crabtree was rewarded, and the receiver broke free from a pair of defenders, rumbling into the end zone. No. 7 Texas Tech secured an upset over No. 1 Texas. Fans overflowed onto AT&T Field when there was still one second left on the clock, a chaotic scene, fitting since the Red Raiders had just flipped the college football world on its head in more ways than one. 

Texas Tech, the air-raid offense and Harrell had arrived. Leach’s schemes could no longer be considered gimmicky or only feasible for programs on the fringe. Not when those schemes had been instrumental in taking down the nation’s top team. 

Ten years later, Leach is now the head coach of Washington State and traces of his air-raid offense can be seen everywhere, from Texas high school football to the Kansas City Chiefs. And Harrell, who quarterbacked the Red Raiders to their biggest win in school history, is all grown up. He was hired as USC’s offensive coordinator after cutting his teeth in the same role at North Texas. At USC, he will attempt to replicate his accomplishments at Texas Tech with a program nowhere near the fringes. 

With spring football just around the corner, Harrell is tasked with revitalizing a dormant USC offense hamstrung by inexperience, a lack of discipline and nonsensical play-calling. That process will start with continuing to develop precocious quarterback JT Daniels, who was a true freshman last season. 

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Daniels should have stayed in high school last season. It showed many times, like when he went 6-for-16 on pass attempts against Utah or when he tossed a pair of interceptions at UCLA. 

In 2018, Amon-Ra St. Brown acted as Daniels’ security blanket — the freshman receiver led all Trojans with 60 receptions. When St. Brown was covered, Daniels ran into trouble. Take Daniels’ first quarter interception against Texas, for example. From the moment the ball is snapped, his eyes are locked onto St. Brown. When it’s obvious he’s coated by a defender, Daniels hesitates, then throws it in St. Brown’s direction anyways, gifting Texas cornerback Kris Boyd an interception. USC would lose that game 37-14. 

This season, Daniels needs to get better at moving through his progressions and processing information quicker. Harrell’s offense could be a godsend in this regard. The air-raid offense is all about simplifying pass concepts and helping quarterbacks find receivers in man coverage. 

In a Los Angeles Times profile on air-raid offenses, former Texas Tech quarterback Sonny Combie said, “My whole time at Tech, we didn’t add new plays. We had 20 plays we ran really well.” 

Since then, the system has evolved under Leach’s disciples, like Kliff Kingsbury and Harrell, to include more read-option and spread concepts. But, the fundamentals are the same: Send receivers deep on almost every play so the signal caller can either exploit one-on-one matchups deep or check down to the flat or middle of the field, where receivers have cleared out space. 

Last season, USC’s plays were often too slow to develop, with Daniels faking one or two handoffs before throwing it to a receiver on a screen, for example. Plays like these will be largely eliminated under Harrell, with an emphasis on getting the ball out as quickly as possible. 

“Don’t think — play,” Harrell said of his philosophy at a press conference in Heritage Hall. 

It’s a fitting mantra from Harrell, whose fearless style of play at Texas Tech helped him shatter several NCAA records (he’s the Football Bowl Subdivision’s fourth all-time leader in pass yards). Plus, he helped develop one young quarterback into an elite passer at North Texas. Mason Fine led the Conference USA in pass yards in 2018, his third season in Harrell’s system. 

When Texas Tech trailed by 1 point with 89 seconds left against Texas in 2008, Harrell didn’t think. He played within the air-raid philosophy that had become second nature. Now, it’s his job to help Daniels reach that point.

Trevor Denton is a junior writing about sports. His column, “T-Time,” runs every other Wednesday.