Harrell is filling the air

When Graham Harrell finished his illustrious career at Ennis High in Texas with a record-setting 12,532 yards and 167 touchdowns, colleges throughout the country clamored for his services.

Georgia, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, North Carolina State, Purdue, Wisconsin, Kansas State, Texas Tech and Arizona State all came calling, scholarship offers in hand.

In the end, Harrell stayed true to the Lone Stare state and chose Texas Tech. He's never regretted the decision.

It's been a match made in heaven for the 6-foot-3 200-pound Harrell, who has passed for more than 11,000 career yards and leads the 12th-ranked Red Raiders (1-0) into a first-ever meeting against Nevada (1-0) Saturday night at Mackay Stadium (6:05 p.m.).

"It (the recruiting process) was fun, but did get old after a while," Harrell said in a telephone interview earlier this week prior to practice. "You meet a lot of coaches and a lot of players. The bad thing is you have to tell most of them no.

"The main thing was finding someplace where I would fit in. I came from a high school that ran an offense very similar to what we do here. I don't know why he (coach Mike Leach) doesn't get the top-ranked (passing) quarterback in the nation every year. Who doesn't want to throw all the time and have the freedom to do what they want? It's a fun system to play in; a great system."

And a system that Harrell has excelled in. He needs less than 1,600 yards the rest of the season to supplant Kliff Kingsbury as Tech's all-time leading passer. He has three 500-yard career games, a 600-yard effort and 14 games of 400 or more yards. He's been the MVP of the Gator Bowl and Insight Bowl the past two years. About the only thing left would be a division championship and/or a BCS game.

The performance is kind of what coach Mike Leach envisioned.

"He was a complete player," Leach said. "He doesn't have any real weakness. He was pretty good at everything. He was a real accurate passer. He picked things up well."

Both Nevada coach Chris Ault, a former quarterback, and Nevada defensive coordinator Nigel Burton, are impressed with the Texas gunslinger.

"He's a heck of a quarterback," Burton said. "He's a better athlete than people might think."

"He is poised and does a great job," Ault said. "This is the best passing offense to come here the last five or six years, including Hawaii. He's very accurate."

Part of the credit, according to Harrell, goes to Leach. The veteran coach has built on the system he and New Mexico State coach Hal Mumme devised when they worked together at Kentucky.

"Coach does a great job developing quarterbacks," Harrell said. "He makes young guys stay after. They scrimmage and watch film. He gets you really to focus; helps you get it down. He gets you ready to play."

After a redshirt season in 2004 and a freshman season in 2005 where he played in six games and threw 51 passes, Harrell became the starter in his sophomore year and a star was born. He finished with 4,555 yards and 38 scores in 13 games.

"I don't know if there was a specific game or instance where I knew I belonged," Harrell said. "Like I said my high school offense had similar concepts. That helped me pick up things quicker.

"The UTEP game (376 yards, 2 TDs in second start) gave me a lot of confidence in the system. We won on the road. I can play and do this."

The job doesn't come without pressure, however. Leach sends in a play, and Harrell has the freedom to change. Leach makes a call based on down and distance, and not the alignment that Harrell sees once the defense breaks its huddle. Checking off a play, according to Harrell, is the norm during the game.

"There is more pressure on the quarterback; more responsibility," Harrell said. "Coach always tells me that if I'm going to check out of a play, it better be a better one. After a few years, I'm better at changing out of plays."

Surprisingly, the Red Raiders' passing playbook isn't huge. Harrell said it's comprised of about 20 plays, but each can be run with five or six variations.

"We spread people out and attack them where they aren't," Harrell said. "We have five skill people we put out there. Defenses have to give us something. We have to find the open spots.

"We run our plays out of so many different formations that's why it looks so complicated. We might run what looks like a different play because we run it out of a different formation."

Another thing that's helped is having talented wide receivers like Michael Crabtree and Eric Morris. Crabtree, who caught 22 TDs and had 1,962 yards receiving, was the 2007 Biletnikoff Award winner, and is a sure bet to head to the NFL after this season. Morris had 75 catches for 787 yards and nine scores a year ago.

"No question," Harrell said, referring to Crabtree. "He's an unbelievable player, an unbelievable receiver. He's so special. He is everything you want in a receiver. He's so competitive. He has such great body control."

Harrell won the Sammy Baugh Award last year and is a nominee for the O'Brien Award this season. He admits that winning it would be nice, but that isn't what he's thinking about. His main focus would be getting the Red Raiders to a BCS game.

Even the NFL is an afterthought. Harrell wants to extend his career, but he doesn't want to let those thoughts get in the way of preparation and performance. He believes if he handles his job, things will take care of themselves.

- Contact Darrell Moody at dmoody@nevadaappeal.com, or by calling (775) 881-1281

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