Graham Harrell arrived in Los Angeles last January at a moment of desperation for USC.
The departure of Kliff Kingsbury after only one month as offensive coordinator had left USC’s football program looking directionless. But here was the next best thing — another up-and-coming aficionado of the Air Raid, capable of reinventing a stale offense that fell to 91st in scoring in 2018.
It was an easy sell for USC, and an ideal fit for Harrell, who, after three seasons at North Texas, was ready to prove himself on the biggest possible stage.
“Realistically, there aren’t many schools in the country where you can win a national championship,” Harrell said in February. “If you ever get to one of those schools, you better jump on it. You may never get it again.
“That’s why I’m here.”
Ten months later, after a stellar first season in which he transformed the Trojans into a top-20 offense, Harrell is still here, in spite of other schools’ best efforts to lure him away.
A week after an interview with Texas led USC to offer its rising star offensive coordinator a sizable raise, the school has yet to announce a new deal for Harrell. But as the Trojans held their first of 11 bowl practices on Friday, with their full staff still intact, all signs continue to point to him sticking around.
The same can’t be said just yet about USC’s other two coordinators, Clancy Pendergast and John Baxter, whose jobs appear to be secure until USC plays in the Holiday Bowl against Iowa on Dec. 27. Questions about their status won’t be answered until next Tuesday, when Clay Helton speaks to reporters for the first time since USC announced he’d continue as head coach.
There is no such doubt about Harrell. This week, as rumors flew about Harrell’s interest in Texas, as well as head coach openings at Texas San Antonio and Nevada Las Vegas, the uncertainty surrounding his status made the urgency in retaining the hot-shot coordinator, to pair again with a coach on the hot seat, all the more clear.
It certainly wasn’t lost on new athletic director Mike Bohn, who, in explaining his decision to keep Helton, offered unprompted praise of Harrell. Two days later, Bohn offered Harrell a new contract, with the full understanding that he couldn’t afford to lose him.
Harrell proved himself worthy of the investment in his debut season with the Trojans. Even after USC lost its starting quarterback two quarters into the season, Harrell still managed to turn the Trojans into the nation’s fifth-ranked passing attack (335.9 yards per game), while helping develop a three-star backup quarterback, Kedon Slovis, into the Pac-12’s offensive freshman of the year.
When Slovis suffered a concussion against Utah, Harrell altered the offense accordingly with a torrent of deep balls from third-stringer Matt Fink.
A backfield decimated by injury forced further adjustments down the stretch. As USC entered the final six weeks of its schedule, Harrell was down three backs, with only Kenan Christon, a 185-pound freshman speedster, and Quincy Jountti, a walk-on, available at running back. So he got creative. Against Colorado, he drew up an opening-drive play that motioned wideout Amon-ra St. Brown into the backfield. St. Brown took his first handoff 37 yards for a touchdown.
In spite of Harrell’s best hopes to establish the run, USC struggled to find much consistency on the ground, as its patchwork backfield finished 112th in the nation in rushing yards per game. Even without a reliable run game, the Trojans, at 6.61 yards, still ranked among the most explosive attacks in the nation on a per-play basis.
USC has the talent to be even better on offense next season, with a healthier backfield, a more experienced Slovis, and a bevy of playmakers returning around him. At North Texas, Harrell’s offense made a considerable leap in his second season, jumping from 70th in total offense to 22nd.