Mountaineers Hire Graham Harrell
Over the first three seasons of head coach Neal Brown’s tenure, the offensive output in Morgantown has left much to be desired. As a result, the vast majority of the offseason commentary focused on the need to hire an offensive coordinator. Well, West Virginia fans, Brown certainly gave us a splash earlier today. The Mountaineers hire Graham Harrell as their new offensive coordinator.
It is no secret that West Virginia struggled offensively the last few years. In 2019, the Mountaineers averaged 20.6 points per game, good for just 116th in FCS. In 2020, they averaged 26.5 points per game, good for 83rd. Then, in 2021, they averaged 25.2 points per game, good for 88th.
Worse, the team eclipsed 30 points just seven times in 31 games against Power Five teams in those three years. Indeed, against those Power Five opponents, West Virginia averaged just 21.7 points per game during that span.
Post-game review after post-game review lamented the offense’s inability to consistently move the ball. The run game saw more valleys than peaks. The pass game suffered from stagnation. The offensive line, while showing signs of improvement over the last six games of 2021, has showed its inexperience.
As a result of the ongoing woes, many observed that Brown pretty much had to hire a dedicated offensive coordinator to call plays. Scoring twenty-two points a game, simply, would not be enough. Wins would be hard to come by, and, even in those wins, the product would just look boring.
Some members of the media took things too far. Every move was questioned. Why did Brown let Ken Ciarrocca go to Minnesota? Then, Brown was absolutely “lost” by allowing USF to hire Travis Trickett as offensive coordinator. Stoking anger fervently, one such writer went so far as to say “[w]e are not stupid” and that the entire “foundation of WVU football” was eroding, demanding answers.
For our part, we did not hear much. We were simply told “plans are in place.” Our sources, however, gave us no indication of what those plans were. Without much to go on, we felt it best to reserve judgment. With nothing yet to report, we certainly were not going to offer speculation or open criticism for the lack of things to speculate on.
The Move Underway
We still have no confirmation as to exactly how long discussions between West Virginia and Harrell were underway. That said, context allows some educated guesses. While jump-the-gun writers sought to erode confidence in light of the Trickett-to-USF rumblings over the past few days, conversations with Harrell were almost certainly underway. As a result of those discussions, Brown had no room to offer Trickett the offensive coordinator position.
This certainly explains why Shane Lyons and Brown would “allow” Trickett to walk without a fight. They probably did fight, but they did not have the title left to bestow. Why? Because “plans [were] in place.” Granted, we heard that line before. As a result, we were not sure what to believe. What did those contingencies look like? Well, we were all in the dark on this one. That said, assuming that was the trade that was made (Trickett for Harrell), we suspect that all parties should be satisfied with the result.
In his comments from West Virginia’s announcement, Brown told fans that he has “spent time reflecting on the program” since the end of the season. He admits that he has been “serving in a dual role as the offensive coordinator and head coach, and we need to bring in another voice for the offense.” Thus, contrary to opinion pieces thrown out over the last month, Brown understands what he needs to do to move the program forward.
What Harrell Offers
Based on his comments, Brown clearly intends that Harrell will be coordinating the offense and calling plays in 2022. Indeed, the university also announced that Chad Scott will stay on as running backs coach and take on the additional role as run game coordinator. Meanwhile, Gerad Parker will retain his role as wide receivers coach and will be the “number 2 lead in the offensive room, as he has done.” The main difference in Parker’s role is that he will act as number 2 to Harrell, not Brown.
Harrell offers West Virginia six years of experience as an offensive coordinator split evenly between two destinations. North Texas hired Harrell to serve in that role before the 2016 season. In 2015, before Harrell arrived, the Mean Green averaged 15.2 points per game, good for 124th in FCS. By 2017, the team averaged 35.5 points per game, good for 19th.
Then, prior to the 2019 season, USC hired Harrell to be their offensive coordinator. In 2018, USC averaged 26.1 points per game, good for 92nd in the country. The Trojans immediately improved, and, by 2020, they averaged 33.3 points per game, good for 31st in the country. Indeed, Harrell seems to specialize in quick turnarounds of the offenses he takes over. In fact, in his first season at North Texas, the Mean Green added nine points per game to their average, and, in his first season at USC, the Trojans added six points per game to their totals.
Harrell’s Offensive Background and Playcalling
Harrell has experience in the Big 12. Indeed, he played four years for Texas Tech from 2005 to 2008. Over his career, he threw for nearly 16,000 yards with a 70% completion rate. He also threw 134 touchdowns to just 34 touchdowns. He added 12 more touchdowns on the ground. Predictably, he has coached the quarterbacks the majority of his career, and he will coach the quarterbacks in Morgantown.
Harrell qualifies as an Air Raid coach, but he looks more like Dana Holgorsen than Mike Leach. In other words, he certainly will not abandon the run game (his play-calling tendency thus far has been around 45% run). We expect that Brown will still expect his offense to focus on establishing the run to the degree it can.
Finally, while we have absolutely zero insider information on this, we do note that Harrell’s freshman dual threat quarterback, Jaxson Dart, announced on the same day that he was entering the transfer portal. Morgantown is a long way from his home in Utah, but the timing offers some intrigue (beyond the likely outcome that Caleb Williams is following Lincoln Riley to USC).
Regardless, the Mountaineers hire Graham Harrell to help overhaul their offense, and the move could not come at a better time.