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McKewon: Examining OC options, Air Raid fit, and the value of a seasoned vet

McKewon: Examining OC options, Air Raid fit, and the value of a seasoned vet

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LINCOLN — Patience in hiring an offensive coordinator may pay off for Scott Frost as he progresses into the second week of selecting coaches.

Former USC and North Texas play-caller Graham Harrell — who a source described as a “big swing” target as the search kicked off — appears to be within NU’s reach, according to reports, although Harrell could entertain coordinator offers from other programs and a potential head coach job offer from a non-Power Five FBS school. The 36-year-old who spent the last three years with the Trojans making more than $1 million per year would bring the play-caller experience Frost wanted when tabbing a replacement for Matt Lubick, whom Frost fired Nov. 8.

“If I'm going to turn it over to somebody, I just need somebody that's done it and that I can trust to put our heads together and put the best of what they do with the best of what we do and let him run with it,” Frost said in mid-November.

The best of what Harrell — the son of a coach — does is the passing portion of the Air Raid system, devised in part by Harrell’s mentor, Mike Leach, who watched Harrell throw for more than 15,000 yards and 130 touchdowns as a Texas Tech quarterback in the mid-2000s. Harrell has tended to push back a bit on the idea that his offense solely revolves around throwing the ball.

“The Air Raid offense is more of a philosophy than actual Xs and Os,” Harrell said upon taking the USC job in 2019. “That’s what Coach Leach has done such a good job of and why the Air Raid — or what they call the Air Raid — has had success no matter where it’s been. Again, to me, it’s more a philosophy than a scheme, and that philosophy is, ‘Keep it easy and let the guys go play.’”

USC ranked sixth, 11th and 18th in passing yards per game over Harrell’s three seasons in Los Angeles. Current Nebraska running back Markese Stepp, who transferred from USC, referred to Harrell’s offense as “pretty boy” in August compared to a “gritty” style NU used. USC's offense actually averaged 146 rush yards per game in 2021, but its system leans more toward a Purdue model of rush offense than Nebraska's current preference. 

Although Nebraska has thrown the ball far more often in the last 18 seasons than it did during its glory years under Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne, the Air Raid system tends to produce some of the most prolific passing yards and attempts in college football. Husker fans who tend to cringe at those 43 passes thrown in the 2004 loss in Iowa State’s wind tunnel, or the 10-for-31 performance from Tommy Armstrong at the 2015 Illinois game, may ask: Can a system so predicated on the pass work in cold, windy climate?

The answer may be found in two of Leach’s coaching stops. It’s windy in west Texas, where Leach coached the Red Raiders. And it’s cold in Pullman, Washington, where Leach coached Washington State. The Air Raid produced 11-win seasons, and record-breaking quarterback play, at both stops.

If Harrell picks NU, he becomes a younger version of Frost — that dynamic, aggressive play-caller that has a quarterback- and big play-friendly system. But he’s not going to be a mentoring presence for Frost, who has desired — and is being asked — to move more into a CEO role befitting of a major college football coach.

Surrounding Harrell with more seasoned offensive line and running backs coaches provides the structure for a play-caller brand new to the Big Ten. Harrell’s track record may attract a top option in the transfer portal. Or he could come with a transfer QB in tow, since it’s not clear whether new USC head coach Lincoln Riley has any intention of retaining either Kedon Slovis or Jaxson Dart — both had success with the Trojans in 2021 — or pursuing his QB at Oklahoma, Caleb Williams. The NCAA transfer portal and its promise of immediate eligibility make such transitions easy.

Should Nebraska lean toward an older offensive coordinator, it may open the door for younger position coaches while allowing the coordinator to fully run the offense.

That arrangement would favor options like Virginia’s Robert Anae — a 30-year coaching veteran who a source said is admired by multiple layers of NU’s football operation — or Pittsburgh’s Mark Whipple, who has 40 years in the profession and was previously head coach at Massachusetts.

Pitt's quarterback, Kenny Pickett, is a Heisman Trophy finalist this season for Whipple, who, according to most recent salary figures, makes less than $500,000 per year. Whipple is a quarterback expert, having coached the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger at the start of his NFL career. He later coached Colt McCoy with the Cleveland Browns. 

Anae, who makes just over $600,000 per year, has directed three straight Cavalier offenses to 30 or more points per game in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Anae’s boss and friend at UVA, Bronco Mendenhall, abruptly resigned as head coach to spend more time with family. According to multiple reports, Penn State safeties coach Anthony Poindexter is a leading candidate to get the Cavalier job over Anae.

Whipple, who had one of the nation's best offenses at Pitt this season and helped make Kenny Pickett a Heisman finalist, reportedly resigned from his position Tuesday.

The dominoes could fall in opposite directions once Frost makes a decision.

Harrell would be a big name — one of the storylines of the Big Ten offseason given his success as a college quarterback and prominence as USC’s coordinator — that could boost NU’s attractiveness to transfers.

Anae or Whipple — or some other candidate, perhaps with an NFL background — may give Frost the room to hand off some game planning duties while taking on broad off-the-field responsibilities in player connection and leadership development.

For the moment Nebraska has options tilted in its favor, pacing slightly ahead of other schools trying to fill their coordinator vacancies.

Indiana recently picked Walt Bell, another former UMass head coach. Minnesota named Kirk Ciarrocca its offensive coordinator for the second time in P.J. Fleck’s tenure. Georgia Tech picked Tulane’s Chip Long. Oklahoma reportedly seems close to landing Ole Miss' Jeff Lebby. Washington State picked Harrell’s former Texas Tech teammate, Incarnate Word head coach Eric Morris, as its offensive coordinator.

NU could end up with a bigger name than all of those. 

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