USC hires Graham Harrell as offensive coordinator

Graham Harrell talks with Green Bay Packers coach Mike McCarthy during a preseason game against the Chargers in 2012.
(Lenny Ignelzi / AP)

USC’s next offensive coordinator may well check off a lot of the same boxes as its last one, but there is one key difference: As a younger version of Kliff Kingsbury, Graham Harrell is not a flight risk.

Harrell accepted the Trojans’ offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach position Monday night, according to Harrell’s father, Sam. And, instead of employing a proven wizard in the art of the “Air Raid” in Kingsbury, USC coach Clay Helton will turn over the offense to an ambitious 33-year-old in Harrell who will have the chance to use USC as his proving ground running the free-wheeling attack.

By hiring Harrell, Helton showed that his interest in Kingsbury, the former Texas Tech quarterback and coach who left USC after only a month to take over as coach of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, was just as much in his ability to transition the Trojans to the “Air Raid” offense as grabbing the hottest name on the market.


Where Kingsbury was always likely to treat USC as a pit stop on the way to another head coaching job, Harrell is cut from the same cloth — Mike Leach’s — but is still on the way up in the profession. At North Texas the last two seasons, Harrell’s offenses finished in the top 25 nationally, but his ceiling as a play-caller and coordinator is still being determined.

That will happen at USC, which has returning personnel that should fit Harrell’s version of the “Air Raid” that uses more called run plays than Leach’s, according to Sam Harrell.

The Trojans will have back sophomore quarterback JT Daniels and their top four receivers from last season — Michael Pittman Jr., Tyler Vaughns, Amon-ra St. Brown and Velus Jones Jr. Running backs Stephen Carr and Vavae Malepeai have versatile skill sets that are not realized to this point. Any struggles USC has on the offensive line can be more easily masked in this system as well.

Sam Harrell said his understanding is that his son will have full control of the offense, calling plays and implementing his system.

USC had not officially announced Harrell’s hiring as of Tuesday night. Helton said in an interview for the athletic department’s website posted Tuesday afternoon that “we should be able to announce our new coordinator very soon, someone we believe will take our offense to new heights.”

Helton added: “Finding that right person to lead our offense sometimes takes time. Instead of rushing into a decision, I have been committed to doing the necessary research to find the proper fit for our team and our current personnel.”


Helton confirmed the new coordinator will call plays.

“My job on game days will be managing game situations,” he said.

Before Harrell can teach the players the “Air Raid,” he will have to instruct the coaches. Offensive line coach Tim Drevno and receivers coach Keary Colbert do not have “Air Raid” experience, but running backs coach Mike Jinks, who coached under Kingsbury at Texas Tech, will help with the transition.

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USC has a week before national signing day to get Harrell in contact with recruits, especially committed but unsigned receivers Kyle Ford of Orange Lutheran and Puka Nacua of Orem, Utah.

Harrell can’t sell them much on experience as a coordinator, but he can tout quick results upon putting his offense in place.

Before North Texas hired Seth Littrell as coach and he handed the offense to Harrell, the Mean Green had played in one bowl game in 11 seasons. With Littrell and Harrell, North Texas has played in three consecutive bowl games.

Harrell was considered for offensive coordinator openings this offseason at North Carolina and Oklahoma State. Harrell, who had a brief NFL career as a Green Bay Packers backup, also coached receivers under Leach at Washington State for two seasons.


USC finished last season tied for 90th in scoring (26.1 points per game) and 84th in offense (382.6 yards per game).

Change in strength and conditioning

Helton said that head strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis left USC to join the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks. Lewis spent five years with the Trojans.

“Ivan’s replacement will be someone who can develop our players’ total body as well as design programs for their skill-specific needs,” Helton said. “That person will be forward thinking when it comes to the art of sports science and how it can help our players gain a competitive advantage. And someone who will establish toughness, discipline and teamwork that will carry over to the practice field and games.”

Farewell to McCoy

Helton addressed the transfer of five-star Santa Ana Mater Dei receiver Bru McCoy to Texas only two weeks after enrolling at USC.


“Bru’s decision was personal to him,” Helton said. “He is a fine young man who has a bright future and I wish him well.”


USC’s spring practice will start the first week of March and run through mid-April. The public spring showcase will be held on campus April 6. … Helton announced that former Trojans Chris Hawkins and Viane Talamaivao joined the program as graduate assistants.

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Twitter: @BradyMcCollough