LOS ANGELES – Graham Harrell has been living in a hotel near campus during his first six weeks as Southern California’s offensive coordinator, so he hasn’t seen much of his new city.
The near-lifelong Texan also hasn’t seen much of LA’s famously gorgeous weather, thanks to an unusually stormy February.
“They lied to me!” Harrell said with a grin. “They said it rains like 10 days a year, and it’s rained like 15 since I’ve been here. So besides getting lied to like that, it’s pretty nice when the sun is out. Also, what y’all call rain is a drizzle in Texas.”
The rain stopped for the Trojans’ second practice of spring Thursday night, and Harrell seized the chance to look at the big picture in his new job. He watched much of the workout from the deck of USC’s baseball stadium next-door to the Trojans’ practice fields, surveying his players’ progress from above and figuring out just how much work is left to install his version of the Air Raid offense at one of college football’s most storied programs.
“At times, just in the flow of practice, I’m pulling my hair out because I’m used to seeing it three years in, instead of two days in,” Harrell said. “But considering it’s two days, these guys are doing a lot of great things and making a lot of plays.”
The 33-year-old Harrell has one of the most scrutinized assignments in the sport this year as he attempts to create a quick offensive fix for the Trojans. USC ranked 91st in the FBS in scoring and 11th in the Pac-12 in yardage last fall during its first losing season since 2000, but head coach Clay Helton managed to keep his job with a mandate to improve the Trojans’ offense immediately.
Helton fired much of his offensive staff and hired Kliff Kingsbury, but the former Texas Tech coach left after 34 days when the Arizona Cardinals unexpectedly called. Three weeks later, Helton hired Harrell to call the Trojans’ plays in his version of the quick-strike, pass-heavy offense popularized by Washington State coach Mike Leach, who coached both Kingsbury and Harrell at Texas Tech.
Harrell has three years of experience as an offensive coordinator at North Texas, but he’s starting from scratch with USC’s elite talent – nearly all of which was recruited to play in Helton’s old offense, not an up-tempo Air Raid variant. Harrell is undaunted by the challenge, and he’ll get plenty of help from Helton and a staff that realizes its job security likely depends on a bounce-back season.
“I’m excited about going against it in practice every day,” said Clancy Pendergast, the Trojans’ veteran defensive coordinator. “It’s really good for our defense to see all the different types of passing concepts, especially this early in camp.”
USC’s quarterbacks are splitting practice time in the spring, which means J.T. Daniels is back in competition with Jack Sears and Matt Fink after Daniels’ up-and-down freshman season. All three quarterbacks seem eager to learn an offense that has produced more than its share of prolific passers.
“It’s built to go fast, built for an athletic quarterback, built to spread the ball around,” Sears said. “If you like to play fast, it’s the perfect offense for you.”
Harrell’s offense turned Mason Fine into the top passer in North Texas history in just three seasons, and whoever wins the Trojans’ starting job will have high expectations on his passing arm. But even after two days of practice, Harrell realizes he has a huge advantage in his work thanks to one of the best receiver groups in the nation: Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns and Amon-Ra St. Brown.
“The (quarterbacks) have picked up the offense extremely fast, and we’ve got some special receivers,” Harrell said. “They’re making a lot of great plays out there, and when you’ve got that, it makes the quarterback’s job and my job a lot easier.”
The Trojans have several months of work to do before their season opener against Fresno State on Aug. 31 at the Coliseum. Harrell should have a place to live by then, which means he’ll also get a taste of LA’s infamous traffic soon – not that he’s complaining.
“It’s a special place,” Harrell said. “That’s why I was so excited about the job. There’s not many times you get to come and work at a top program of all time in college football, and live in Southern California while you do it. It’s a great place to work, and we have a lot of great players, so that makes it even more fun.”
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