It felt like Mason Fine had sent his tape to every Football Bowl Subdivision school. But as of January 2016, Fine, the two-time Oklahoma Gatorade player of the year, had no scholarship offers from college football’s top division just weeks away from signing day.
Some Division II schools were after him, and Austin Peay of the Football Championship Subdivision had offered him, too. Oklahoma State liked his game but could propose only a preferred walk-on status to the 5-foot-10, 160-pound gunslinger.
“Every coach, every scout, was like ‘You’re too small to play Division I football,’” Fine said. “They said ‘You’re a great quarterback, but you’re never going to play at this level.’”
Then one day, out of the wide-stretching blue of an Eastern Oklahoma sky, Fine’s phone rang. It was Graham Harrell, the new offensive coordinator at North Texas, calling to say he was coming by Locust Grove High to meet him. North Texas coach Seth Littrell had heard about Fine from Locust Grove coach Matt Hennesy, an old friend, and sent Harrell to take a look.
At first, Fine was a bit starstruck. He came from a family that lived for Big 12 football every Saturday, and Fine, despite being in elementary school at the time, remembered watching Harrell sling it in Mike Leach’s “Air Raid” offense at Texas Tech.
Before long, North Texas handed Fine that elusive FBS offer.
“To this day,” Fine said, “I thank them.”
Fine has thanked Littrell and Harrell plenty the last three seasons. He’s a two-time Conference USA offensive player of the year and, when next season kicks off, he will be the active FBS leader in career passing yards with 9,417.
With Harrell in his first year as USC’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, Fine’s three years working under him, offer the best window into what Trojans quarterbacks can expect from Harrell as he tries to bring the same level of success he had in Conference USA to the Pac-12.
One difference is that, upon arriving in Los Angeles, Harrell didn’t have to go scrambling to identify diamonds in the rough in far-flung small towns. At USC, he inherited a sophomore incumbent in JT Daniels, a coveted prospect out of Santa Ana Mater Dei who got to choose his college destination.
The Trojans are hoping Daniels’ performance takes a big jump in Harrell’s take on the “Air Raid,” a hunch coach Clay Helton felt developing as Daniels completed 18 of his first 19 passes against Notre Dame last season using an offense predicated on a quick passing game.
Daniels being as productive as Fine is the first step in USC putting together a major comeback after a 5-7 season. But that means operating a new offense effectively in Harrell’s crosshairs.
“Graham’s a very laid-back guy off the field,” Littrell said. “Great guy to be around, great smile, has great stories. The thing that people don’t realize with Graham, he’s very, very competitive. He does not like to lose. I don’t care if it’s ping-pong or pickup basketball or we’re jogging two miles at lunch. He’s going to expect a lot out of his quarterbacks, expect them to play at a high level and not make mistakes.”
Said Fine, “He’s going to coach you hard. He’s going to get on you. If you mess up a play, he’s going to let you know about it. Sometimes, you gotta be mentally tough and don’t listen to how he’s saying it, listen to what he’s saying.”
Daniels said Harrell’s offense plays to the strengths he showed in that first half against Notre Dame as USC picked the Fighting Irish apart. He noticed Harrell is “strict in what he believes in, and what he believes in works,” which Fine can confirm.
“The reads are sacred,” Fine said. “As long as you go through your reads, your progressions, just stick to the rules, you’re going to be successful in this offense.”
Littrell said Harrell turned down a few offers that would have doubled or tripled his salary before USC came calling. As Harrell debated the USC opportunity, he had a long conversation with Fine, going over the pros and cons — a show of the trust built between the coach and his quarterback. Fine understands why Harrell did not stick around for his senior season.
Back in Denton, Texas, Fine has come a long way from where he was before Harrell visited Locust Grove more than three years ago. Recently, an NFL scout came by to see him and take his measurements.
Still 5-10 on the dot.
Despite what he has accomplished, the old questions persist.