USC’s offensive coordinator Graham Harrell threw for 15,793 yards and 134 touchdowns during his time at Texas Tech University — the fourth and third most in NCAA history, respectively.
Now, he hopes to impart the spread scheme that helped him achieve video game numbers onto a Trojan offense that was devoid of life last year.
Harrell previously worked under Mike Leach, his college coach, as the outside receivers’ coach at Washington State, where Leach’s spread offense has often boasted the leading passer in the nation despite underwhelming recruiting. Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew II, who has taken the NFL by storm with his famous mustache and atypical background after being a three-star product out of high school, threw 4,779 yards and 38 touchdowns for the Cougars in his final college season. Redshirt senior Anthony Gordon, WSU’s current starting quarterback, is averaging over 400 yards passing per game — further proof of the scheme’s effectiveness.
Texas Tech has employed the spread offense to great offensive success. When last year’s NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes played at TTU, he had over 5,000 yards in a season and an outrageous 734 yards passing in one game.
While Art Briles has had a career mired with scandal, his scheme turned a Baylor team that consistently finished at the bottom of the Big 12 standings into a perennial contender. Briles’ Air Raid was so effective that in 2015, after two quarterbacks went down with injuries, a third-stringer led the Bears through four games to a bowl win against No. 10 UNC.
In summation, the Air Raid works very, very well.
While USC head coach Clay Helton rejects the notion that USC uses a true Air Raid, the offense has looked like one through its first five games. Even though their top two quarterbacks on the depth chart are injured, the Trojans are not calling the season — primarily because of their faith in the scheme.
The Air Raid offense, as the name suggests, maintains a commitment to the air attack by passing the ball frequently. Mike Leach’s WSU offense has been known to pass the ball around 50 times per game. While USC is only averaging about 35 pass attempts per game, many of the core concepts remain the same.
To move the chains and create manageable second and third downs, the traditional Air Raid elects to throw short, often to the running back, rather than run the ball. Compared to sophomore quarterback JT Daniels’ numerous end zone heaves that seemed to be the focus of USC’s offense last season, Trojan quarterbacks have been more surgical this year, completing short passes at an incredible 72.3% clip between Daniels, freshman Kedon Slovis and redshirt junior Matt Fink. Though Harrell has elected to not completely cut out the run, giving redshirt junior tailback Vavae Malepeai around 15 carries per game, the offense looks primarily to move the ball by passing rather than running.
The Air Raid offense maintains a fast tempo and stresses getting in and out of the huddle quickly. The Trojans have been consistent with this tenet, churning through plays quickly and keeping defenses tired.
The offensive scheme is intentionally simple; there aren’t many plays, and it’s designed to let players play loose. In his introductory press conference, Harrell said just that about his offense.
“You’re not going to sit there and try to out-scheme people,” he said. “It’s an identity. It gives you an identity and says, ‘This is who we are, and we’re going to be good at what we do.’”
Pre-snap, the quarterback reads the defense and determines which matchups are favorable given the formations. Then he snaps the ball and pulls the trigger. It’s that simple.
The X’s and O’s of the Air Raid offense are simple: pass a lot, play fast, identify good matchups and execute. The spread offense has been keeping the Trojans competitive with a third string quarterback, and with Harrell calling the shots, the ceiling is high for USC’s offense.