The last two months are nerve-wracking times for a lot of G5 programs, especially those with hotshot head coaches or assistants. From December to early February, the Power Fives come calling, not just for head coaches but for any assistant that might give them an advantage. North Texas knows all about the poaching that goes on, last season the Mean Green lost a defensive coordinator, offensive line coach, and defensive line coach to different Power 5 programs.
This year the hot name out of Denton is Graham Harrell. The young offensive coordinator is a fast riser and coming into his own as a play caller, and conventional wisdom was that some Power 5 program would come for him to run their offense or maybe even a head job might come his way. While we don't think he's quite ready to run his own show, Harrell is more than capable of running an explosive offense, 2017 proved that.
The Mean Green improved from 117th to 24th in total offense. Chalk a lot of that up to the maturity and growth of Mason Fine, but you can chalk Fine's growth up to Graham Harrell. There exists a unique, almost innate knowledge between the Mike Leach's quarterbacks and the offense he taught them. Kliff Kingsbury, Sonny Cumbie, and Graham Harrell. They seem to be able to simplify the game for their pupils. Fine certainly looked more at ease with the offense as a sophomore in 2017.
For his part, Harrell grew more at ease running the offense. Someday Seth Littrell might get the right amount of credit for the 2016 season, a year when Littrell lacked the offensive pieces to fully run his offense and yet made it work with duct tape and bailing wire. In 2017 the skill talent started to match up with the system and afforded Harrell the chance to run his offense finally.
The result was a nine-win season, a CUSA West Crown, and a second straight bowl appearance. The Mean Green offense improved their passing yards per game by almost 90. They improved by eleven points per game scoring. The Mean Green improved nine percentage points on third down. Seth Littrell described his team's ability to throw ball downfield in 2016 as atrocious. He was being kind. In 2017 the Mean Green improved their explosive passing plays by over 40%.
Most of that production comes back in 2018, and if the Mean Green can just protect Mason Fine, even a little bit, they should be in line for another CUSA West run. Central to that is Harrell, who is settling nicely into his position as a play caller, learning the craft. Remember, before 2016, Harrell served as a quality control staffer for Mike Gundy and an analyst for Mike Leach. He and Fine are poised to continue developing together. After all, no one knows the pressure of expectation in the Air Raid like Graham Harrell.