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On Graham Harrell and the Texas running game

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Can the Trojans offensive coordinator fix the Longhorns running game? Does it even need to be fixed?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 19 Arizona at USC Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

A contract extension reportedly sits on the desk of USC Trojans offensive coordinator Graham Harrell and has since late last week.

Notably, there aren’t any indications that Harrell has signed it yet, meaning that he’s still a candidate for the Texas Longhorns offensive coordinator position. So far, he’s the only name closely connected with the search other than some buzz surrounding LSU Tigers passing game coordinator Joe Brady.

So, with head coach Tom Herman taking his coaching search below the public radar, it’s worth discussing one of the key points of tension with Harrell’s candidacy — his ability to successfully implement a running game. The related issues are whether Texas head coach Tom Herman is in alignment with Harrell on his offensive approach and whether the Longhorns running game is actually broken.

Let’s take this one at a time, first separating fact from fiction about Air Raid coordinators. The coaching tree there goes all the way back to Hal Mumme, but it’s Mike Leach who serves as the effective godfather for that scheme. In Pullman, Leach has remained stubborn after passing to set up the pass and then throwing the ball some more. He’s not interested in establishing any balance whatsoever.

Tableau

That’s wild, right?

But that’s just Leach being Leach — his former disciples have all come to understand the importance of running the football, largely moving away from basing out of four-wide receiver sets by using H-backs or tight ends to get more advantageous numbers at the point of attack.

So where does Harrell fit, philosophically and functionally?

He’s said the right things about the running game.

“We believe in running the football and understand that to win games, especially at a high level, you have to run the football successfully,” Harrell said in his first availability as the USC offensive coordinator.

As a former quarterback, Harrell understands that abandoning the running game puts tremendous pressure on the quarterback to play at a high level for an entire season. As Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger found out this season, the same line of thinking applies to having to carry an injured and underperforming defense.

Functionally, the results weren’t great this season for the Trojans — USC ranks No. 112 nationally in rushing yards per game and No. 85 in rushing yards per carry. Of course, those are raw numbers that aren’t particularly telling, especially since the NCAA includes sack yardage, an area where USC has been average this season.

The advanced stats tell a more precise story, one in which USC ranks No. 31 nationally in rushing success rate and No. 34 in opportunity rate compared to No. 77 in rushing yards per play.

Harrell has an explanation for what happened this season.

“I love to throw the ball, but I think with the team we have and really anytime, I do like to run the football, and I think you’ve got to run the football to win games,” Harrell said. “I think that lately the heavier [passing] has probably been due more to personnel than necessarily what I’d like to do. ... It has been fun and I love to throw it, but I love to win a lot more than I love to throw it, so whatever it takes to win I’ll do and I do think you’ve got to run the football to win.”

Some of the personnel issues were with an offensive line that ranked tied for 68th nationally in returning starts and ended the regular season ranked No. 94 in line yards and No. 85 in standard down line yards.

Whatever the cause, the Trojans had three games this season in which the team averaged less than 2.5 yards per carry despite attempting 22 or more runs.

Harrell may deserve some of that blame due to issues with play calling or scheme, but there’s reason to believe that his explanation about personnel deserves at least some credibility.

At North Texas, Harrell’s offense ranked No. 39 in rushing SP+ in 2018 after ranking No. 63 the year before.

However, there were some positive signs in 2017 — the Mean Green ranked among the top 40 teams nationally in rushing success rate, rushing IsoPPP, and opportunity rate. In opportunity rate, North Texas sat at No. 23, but lagged behind in other measurements like adjusted line yards, power success rate, and stuff rate.

With an offensive line that entered the season ranked tied for 78th in returning experience, the group was boom or bust. When the running backs had a chance, but gave up too many negative plays and struggled in short-yardage situations.

During Harrell’s first season as an offensive coordinator, North Texas had a more experienced offensive line than it did the next year and succeeded in creating explosive plays, but ranked near the bottom of the FBS in adjusted line yards and stuff rate and No. 80 in rushing SP+.

Overall, there’s still a relatively limited sample size with Harrell, but most of the issues seem related to offensive line play, from North Texas to USC. Once again, however, some of that may be Harrell’s fault due to play calling or scheme, it’s just hard to tell from the outside looking in.

If Harrell professes to understand the value of running the football, Herman is perhaps even more committed to that belief as part of his smash-mouth, pro-spread approach honed under Urban Meyer that included the 2014 national championship that featured an ideal balance — the nation’s No. 2 offense in SP+ included the No. 3 rushing attack and the No. 2 passing attack.

As FOX Sports college football analyst Joel Klatt thinks about strong fits with Herman from that perspective, he doesn’t see many options.

“When you look around, there’s not a ton of guys that you can go out there and say, ‘Boy, this is a really good run expert,’ if you will,” Klatt said in a recent radio appearance. “Everybody’s throwing the ball. Everybody is in the spread. I think it’s a tough proposition, to be honest with you.”

That’s in part because Klatt believes that Texas needs to improve running the football. To be sure, there were some late-season issues, especially against the inverted Tampa 2 defenses run by Iowa State and Baylor.

But it’s worth challenging whether Klatt is actually correct about that — the Longhorns have improved in rushing yards per carry over each of the three seasons that Herman has been in Austin, jumping almost an entire yard per carry from 2018. Texas is ranked No. 14 in rushing success and No. 32 in rushing yards per play.

So there are metrics that suggest the running game isn’t broken heading into a 2020 season that should feature three returning starters and another contributor along the offensive line, a healthy Jordan Whittington, and No. 2 running back Bijan Robinson.

And there are other factors in the conventional wisdom about the running game regressing like the injury to Whittington that forced Texas to move fellow freshman Roschon Johnson from quarterback just before the season opener and the injury to Cade Brewer that sidelined him for the final four and a half games.

Brewer’s replacements were a one-dimensional whose presence helped tip off running plays and a true freshman who played quarterback last season.

Or perhaps the reality here is that Herman simply needs to be more willing to do what Harrell did this season and what Texas was reluctant to do against Iowa State — just air the ball out when necessary, as often as necessary to win games when it comes to that.

In that regard, Harrell might just be the right fit to take advantage of the skill position talent at Texas and a senior quarterback. Maybe college football is moving back in Leach’s direction and Harrell is the offensive coordinator to help take the Longhorns there.