Neal Brown and the Mountaineers made a huge splash on Monday with the hiring of Graham Harrell as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Folks who followed college football in the mid-2000s will recognize Harrell as the preeminent quarterback of the Mike Leach era at Texas Tech, and more notably as the guy who threw the pass to Michael Crabtree to beat Texas in 2008. However, he's also had his share of success as an offensive coordinator, first turning around the North Texas Mean Green before more recently transforming USC's passing attack into the best in the Pac 12. All told he's arguably the highest profile assistant that we've ever hired and his announcement has sparked a ton of excitement around a unit that was completely bereft of it. So what exactly can we expect with him at the helm? Let's dig in.
As a guy who both played and coached under Mike Leach, it should go without saying that Graham Harrell is an air raid guy. This doesn't mean that he likes to throw it around as much as his mentor - Harrell's USC was 57% pass during his three year tenure while his North Texas offenses were an even more balanced 51%; Leach is always well north of 70% - but he absolutely subscribes to the air raid philosophy of focusing on executing a limited number of concepts at a high level. This "keep it simple" approach should be a welcome change for an offense that has often looked unsure of what it was trying to be as a result of trying to be too many things at once.
Harrell's passing attack features traditional air raid concepts such as mesh, stick, smash, sail, and verticals packaged up in a bunch of different formations and personnel groupings ranging from 4-wide to two tights (though 11 is most prevalent). He'll also split those up into half-field concepts where, as an example, the receivers on the left side of the formation will run a smash concept while the guys on the right run sail. Aesthetically none of this will look drastically different from what we've seen with Neal Brown over the last three seasons, but there are couple differences in playcalling tendecies worth noting.
The first is that there's more of a downfield element to Harrell's offense than what we've seen so far with Neal. According to PFF, all three of Mason Fine (37%), Kedon Slovis (36%), and Jaxson Dart (40%) attempted a higher percentage of passes that travelled further than 10 yards downfield than either Jarret Doege (32%) or Austin Kendall (34%), with an especially significant disparity in that 10-20 yard range. That ~5% may not feel like much, but actually translates to a couple of extra attempts per game when you throw it 40 times.
The other one is that Harrell utilizes play action at a much lower rate than what we're accustomed to. Per PFF Brown's WVU offenses have generally used play action on about 30% of their dropbacks, but Harrell's teams are usually somewhere in the neighborhood of 15%. It's worth noting here, however, that PFF doesn't count RPOs as play action and Harrell does use plenty of those types of plays.
Those zone-heavy RPO packages are where Harrell's offensive balance comes from and form the foundation of his running game. One of the main complaints I’ve seen from USC fans is that Harrell didn't always fully leverage the running game, which you'll recall was a frequent criticism of Dana Holgorsen early in his tenure in Morgantown. However, this doesn't seem to be a sentiment shared by the folks who watched Harrell at North Texas, and considering how frequently Neal Brown mentioned Harrell's time in Denton during his interviews this week I think that he'll be pushing Harrell to find more of that same balance here in Morgantown. Something to watch either way.
Overall, everything Harrell does is designed to attack grass and make it easy for the quarterback and receivers to read and react, and through six years and two schools it's hard to argue with the results.
SO HOW WILL OUR GUYS FIT IN?
Harrell guided Mason Fine into becoming North Texas' all-time leading passer and transformed USC's passing attack into the best in the Pac 12 with a pair of true freshmen. That's a strong enough track record to make me confident that he'll find way to make it work with at least one of the guys we have on campus. As for who that might be, the lack of designed QB runs and premium that this offense places on processing and decision making makes me think that Goose Crowder and Nicco Marchiol will have the inside track over Garrett Greene. Greene's easily the most explosive of the three and I'd really like to see him find a role in the offense, but his weaknesses will make it tough for him to jump those other two at quarterback.
At running back I think the big winner is incoming transfer Lyn-J Dixon. Dixon excelled in a zone-heavy scheme at Clemson and should be hungry to prove himself to NFL scouts. I do think Tony Mathis is well-positioned to push him for playing time though. Mathis had better success when we went gap-heavy down the stretch last year, but he also did well with zone touches against TCU and his skill set as a decisive one-cut runner would seem to lend itself to a zone blocking system.
Out wide there's a ton of potential, even with all the transfers. I mentioned earlier that Harrell likes to attack vertically, and at USC the vast majority of those targets went to 6'5 210lb receiver Drake London. It's unrealistic to expect either Bryce Ford-Wheaton or Kaden Prather to match the 11 catches and 136 yards that London averaged in his 8 games last year, but both have the physical profile to succeed on the jump balls and intermediate body shield/box out type routes that London feasted on. On the other side I'd like to see Sam James and prolific JUCO Jeremiah Aaron compete to fill the Gary Bryant role as our defensive lid lifter. James was very good in that role as a freshman, but he's transitioned into more of a slot role over the last few seasons that I don't think fully leveraged his skill set. I think it'd be good for him to get back to his deep threat roots, especially considering how well-suited Reese Smith seems to be to handling slot work. Smith has a bit of Daikiel Shorts in his game that neither James nor Winston Wright ever really displayed, and that ability to instinctually gear up or down to find space underneath is something that should be perfect for the concepts that Harrell uses. The lack of depth is worrisome, but overall I think the group will compliment each other well and mesh nicely with what Harrell wants to do.
There should be plenty of playing time to go around for the SUVs. USC tight ends saw 1,374 combined snaps last year, with four seeing at least 150 and five seeing above 100. It's worth noting that Mike O’Laughlin and TJ Banks were deployed inline at a much higher rate last year than USC's were (Harrell's North Texas was again more similar to us in that regard), so guys with receiver skill sets like O'Laughlin, Charles Finley, and CJ Donaldson may have an advantage over blocking types like Brian Polendey. However, there's a nice enough mix of skill sets and body types in that room I'm confident Harrell can find somebody to suit his needs whatever they may be.
Up front is the big question mark. We'll have all five guys back from last year, but those guys objectively performed better as we transitioned from a zone-heavy scheme to a more gap-heavy one later in the year. The argument could certainly be made that quality of opponent played as much of a role in that success as did the scheme, but regardless it's something I'm keeping an eye on this spring - does Harrell change his scheme to leverage what these guys did well last year, or does he hope that another offseason together will bring the continuity needed to excel in his preferred zone system?
However things shake out, I want to end with a kudos to Neal Brown for swallowing his ego and addressing this problem - you sucked me back in and I can't wait to keep climbing in 2022. LFG.