Football, WVU Sports

Graham Harrell has found balance at WVU within his Air Raid philosophy

MORGANTOWN — Yeah, sure, Graham Harrell has his memories of playing against Texas.

Sort of like how teenagers in the 1960s have memories of the Beatles or Neil Armstrong having memories of the moon.

“I’m excited to get back down there,” the WVU offensive coordinator said. “Obviously Texas is where I’m from and I know a lot of people down there. I have memories of playing against these guys, so going down there will be fun.”

It’s a sort of an understatement coming from Harrell, a 37-year-old who still looks like he could put the pads on today and throw for about 474 yards.

That’s what he accomplished back in 2008, as a senior at Texas Tech, when the Red Raiders pulled off one of the most thrilling victories against the Longhorns you’ll ever see.

It was Harrell’s 28-yard TD pass to Michael Crabtree with one second left on the clock that gave Texas Tech a 39-33 win. He attempted 53 passes in the game.

It was the night, it can be argued, that the term “Air Raid” — the style of pass-first offense run by then-Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach — became nationally known to college football.

It’s been the label stuck to Harrell ever since. He was an Air Raid disciple having played for Leach, and he also coached with him at Washington State as an offensive analyst in 2014.

Except Harrell hasn’t yet let the label define who he is as a coach. At his previous stops at North Texas and USC, he took his Air Raid principles and tweaked and molded them into something to fit what he had to work with.

“If you look back at our best years at North Texas, we ran the ball well,” Harrell said. “If you got a really good player, you hand him the ball.”

He wasn’t about to force a round peg into a square hole, because, well, coaching careers don’t last long when that’s the case.

Harrell’s arrival at WVU this year brought with it preconceived notions of backyard football and throwing it 50 times a game.

“Yeah, I figured early on we’d only be pass blocking,” WVU offensive lineman James Gmiter said.

Once Harrell saw the final picture of what he had to work with at WVU (2-2, 0-1), he saw balance, not backyard football.

“I’ve said since I’ve been here, our offensive line, I think, is what you build this team around,” Harrell said. “They’ve done a heck of a job and our running backs have done a good job of always moving forward.”

While handed a talented and experienced thrower in J.T. Daniels and a crop of receivers with great potential, Harrell also saw the Mountaineers’ offensive line as a weapon to open up the running game.

He then got a gift in freshman CJ Donaldson, a tight end out of high school, who has now turned into the fourth-leading rusher in the Big 12 through his first four games.

“When coach Harrell got here in the spring, he immediately started using his running backs in very different ways,” WVU running back Justin Johnson Jr. said. “I wouldn’t say this is the Air Raid. I would say we’re more balanced.”

That balance has the Mountaineers averaging 490 yards, about 120 more per game than last season.

No, it hasn’t come with throwing the ball 53 times a game — WVU is actually averaging a hair over 37 attempts — but that’s more than fine with Harrell.

“If you look at all of the people tagged with the Air Raid, not all of them run the same offense,” Harrell said. “You turn on Leach or anyone who came from Leach and it’s not the same offense. I don’t think any of us are arrogant enough to think our plays are the best plays or the only good plays.”

As Harrell explains it, the Air Raid is more a philosophy than a set of rules set in stone. It’s a philosophy that allows for creativity, but also hundreds of repetitions from different formations in order to get all offensive players comfortable in what they’re seeing.

In the end, Harrell loves the idea of being an Air Raid guy, no matter how many running plays he may call during a game.

“I love coach Leach and being associated with him doesn’t bother me,” Harrell said. “Our goal is to go out there and score points and help the team win. As long as we’re doing our jobs, the rest will take care of itself.”

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