MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Graham Harrell may be new to West Virginia football, but he’s no stranger to the Big 12 Conference.
He played for Mike Leach at Texas Tech from 2004-08. During his time as the Red Raiders’ quarterback, Harrell set numerous NCAA records, including 134 career touchdowns (No. 1) and 15,793 career yards (No. 2). He was also the first player to see a pair of 5,000-yard passing seasons.
But Harrell hasn’t been affiliated with the conference in over a decade. His most recent stint in the league was with Oklahoma State in 2010 as a quality control assistant. As to be expected, a lot has changed since then.
“It seemed when I was playing in it, if you didn’t score 50 every week, you were going to lose. Now there are a lot of great defenses. It’s almost transitioned into a great defensive league instead of a really great offensive league,” Harrell said in an exclusive interview for Mountaineer GameDay.
In his final year as a Texas Tech quarterback, Harrell led the nation in passing yards (5,111) and also ranked No. 1 in the Big 12 in passing completions (442), passing attempts (626), total yards (5,096) and total plays (667). His 45 passing touchdowns were second in the conference that season.
For comparison, Iowa State’s Brock Purdy was the league’s top passer in 2021 with 3,188 yards, and former WVU quarterback Jarret Doege was second with 3,048. Texas’ Casey Thompson led the league in passing touchdowns last season with 29.
“I think the Big 12 was kind of ahead of the curve on offensive football and doing some things that everyone is doing now before everyone was,” Harrell said. “Defenses got ahead of the curve, too, because they had to see it and adjust quicker.”
During that time, especially under Coach Leach’s air raid style of offense, the passing game was critical. Harrell’s aforementioned stats prove that, as TTU went 11-2 in 2008.
However, as the conference has evolved, so has what it takes to be competitive in it.
“You have to be able to run the football at times, and I think that has been the change,” Harrell said. “Running the football efficiently is important, but again, I think it goes back to execution, having an identity, and really getting great at what you do. Identify who we are, what can we do well, because we don’t have time to be great at everything. I think as an offense, sometimes you lose sight of that because there are hundreds and hundreds of great football plays.”
That is something Harrell picked up from Leach during his time in Lubbock. He has incorporated it into his style and it’s a large part of his philosophy as an offensive coordinator.
“Pushing the football down the field is important. You have to be explosive. Whether it’s the run game or the pass game, you have to create explosive plays,” Harrell said. “Those are the things I believe in: being explosive, being great at what you do, going out and executing no matter what the defense is giving you.”
Explosiveness is something WVU has been striving for in the Neal Brown era. The head coach defines an explosive play as 20-plus yards in the passing game and 15 or more yards on the ground.
The Mountaineers totaled 57 in that category in 2020: 21 rushing, 36 passing. Coach Brown wasn’t pleased with that number and tasked his team with surpassing it in 2021. They matched that number exactly.
WVU saw more production through the air with 42 explosive plays compared to just 15 in the run game this past season. The longest pass of the year was 53 yards vs. Baylor, while the longest rush was Leddie Brown’s 80-yard touchdown run vs. Virginia Tech. Winston Wright also returned a kickoff for a 90-yard score vs. Long Island.
The only game the Mountaineers didn’t see at least two explosive plays was vs. Minnesota in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl. West Virginia had season-high 10, including Wright’s kickoff return, against LIU.
Harrell hopes those key pieces to being competitive in the Big 12 Conference — execution and explosive plays — will soon be reflected in WVU’s offensive identity.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to executing, and an offensive mentality of if we get the ball, we expect to score. That’s never going to change,” Harrell said. “Every time we touch it, the expectation is we score. I don’t care what’s happened up until that point. I don’t care if we’ve scored every drive up to that point or if we haven’t scored yet in the game. The next time we touch the ball we want to go score. That is going to be the mentality we set and the expectation we set.”