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Sound the Alarm. Walters hires Air Raid Offensive Coordinator Graham Harrell

Harrell’s ‘Air Raid’ offense keeps Purdue’s Offense Unique

West Virginia v Texas Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

In what might amount to the most important hire that Coach Walters will make for his first staff at Purdue, he tabbed another young but up and coming offensive coordinator in Graham Harrell. The 37 year old offensive mind has worked under some of the best and impactful offensive minds in college football today in Mike Leach, Mike Gundy, and Seth Littrell. Harrell is well thought of around the country as an innovator himself as he has held an offensive coordinator role at North Texas, Southern California (USC), and West Virginia and his air raid offensive system has evolved from his time at each program. Let’s take a look at who the Boilermakers are getting and what are some of the aspects to his ‘Air Raid Offense’ we can expect to see.

Who is Graham Harrell?

Harrell was a a Texas High School football legend from Ennis High School where he won a state title while also setting the single season passing yards record of 4,825 (in 13 games-broken in 2007 by Garrett Gilbert in 16 games), career passing yards of 12,532 (broken by Garrett Gilbert in 2008), single season touchdown passes with 67, career touchdown passes with 167, and single season pass completions with 334 (broken by Garrett Gilbert).

Harrell would be recruited by one of college football’s preeminent minds in the passing game in Mike Leach at Texas Tech where Harrell would set numerous NCAA records including most passes completed in a season (512), most passes completed on average per game in a season (39.4), most passes completed per game in a career (31.2), most games 400+ yards in a season (11), most games 400+ yards passing in a career (20), most seasons gaining 4,000+ yards of total offense (3), most games 400+ yards of total offense in a career (21). He was also a finalist for the 2008 Heisman Trophy (finishing 4th), won the 2008 Johhny Unitas Golden Arm Award, was the Sporting News 2008 National Player of the Year, and was an acedmic all Big 12 player in 2008 posting a 4.0 GPA.

After college, Harrell would play sparingly in the NFL for the Green Bay Packers and the New York Jets before entering the coaching ranks with Oklahoma State on Mike Gundy’s staff as quality control and tutoring the quarterbacks on the new Air Raid system that OSU would be using following the hiring of Dana Holgorsen. In 2014 Harrell joined his former coach at Washington State where he started as an offensive analyst and moved into coaching outside receivers. It was in 2015 that former Texas Tech running back Seth Littrell was hired at North Texas and his first move was the hire Harrell to run the Air Raid which found great success. Prior to Harrell’s hiring, North Texas had ranked in the bottom 25 of the country in passing, total yards, and points but by 2017 and 2018 the offense ranked in the top 25 nationally in all three categories. Harrell was also tabbed to be the offensive coordinator at USC for Clay Helton from 2019-2021 and finally in 2022 with Neal Brown at West Virginia.

What Is The Air Raid?:

The Air Raid offensive system was developed by the late Mike Leach and Hal Mumme but gained notoriety by those two at Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, Washington State, and Mississippi State. It features a system in which 65-75% of the play calls over the course of a season will be passes and gives the quarterback the freedom to audible freely at the line of scrimmage to any play based on what they see pre-snap. The overview of the concepts of the Air Raid is a simplified passing system that uses multiple receivers to overload zone defenders and pick man defenders.

Harrell has moved away from the 70%+ passing offense that Mike Leach used to a more balanced approach that he learned from North Texas HC Seth Littrell where they ran the ball 47.8% of the time. In his two seasons with USC, Harrell ran the ball 41% and 43.2% of the time and it is likely that will be around where the play calling will come next season with Devin Mockobee being the best returning player for the offense.

What Will Purdue’s Offense Look Like?

Likely Purdue’s offense will favor the run much more than Mike Leach’s offense did with a player like Devin Mockobee and will likely look similar to what was being run at USC in 2020 and 2021 that featured Kedon Slovis at quarterback (Slovis is in the portal along with West Virginia’s JT Daniels). There will be a lot of crossover from what we saw with Brohm but Harrell will look to gain advantages in the run game utilizing an extra blocker in the backfield or using RPO (Runn-Pass Option) concepts.

In that USC offense, there were a lot of RPO’s and lots of concepts that the Air Raid offense uses a considerable amount such as 4 verts, Mesh, Quick Screens, Shakes, Stick & Corner, and All Curls. There are some provided examples of some of the staples of Harrell’s passing concepts here that will carry over from his time at USC and WVU to Purdue.

4 Verts:

The concept with 4-Verts is easy to understand. An offense is trying to stretch a defense both as much vertically and horizontally as it can by pushing 4 receiving threats downfield to read what the defense is doing. You can see that each route, except the running back’s angle route, has points where a receiver can break off their route depending on the type of zone or man coverage the defense is in. This is where Harrell’s ideas of ‘repetition and execution’ are featured in that he believes he can run any play against any coverage as long as they execute. The way you get to that point is through continuous repetition (this is where having a QB who has been in his system or something similar would be incredibly beneficial).


The mesh concept is something that has become a staple of a lot of offenses over the last two decades but is really foundational to the Air Raid system. In the play shown below, the H and Y are running a mesh (pick) concept in the middle of the field to put the pressure on linebackers having to defend the speed of an inside receiver and the size/versatility of a TE. The key is reading what the defense is showing and sitting down into open spaces against a zone or using the mesh (pick) to free up receivers against man coverage.


This foundational concept of the Air Raid beats a cover-2 defense concept by forcing the safeties to pick up the Y (inside receiver) or leaving him open down the middle of the field. The QB makes an easy read to throw to the ‘shake’ route on the opposite side of the field where the safeties go. This look below can also be run out of every formation that features at least 1 receiver split wide on either side of the ball.

Stick & Corner:

The concept of the stick and corner is a Mike Leach innovation and can be run on either side of the field. What these concepts are doing is using three levels of routes to stress a defense by identifying where the ‘open grass’ on the field before the snap (where are the linebackers, safeties, and corners playing) and then reading from deep, middle, short in that order on the play side or the opposite by reading inside to outside. Many will notice the ‘whip route’ from the inside receiver and that should give every Purdue fan ‘Vinny Sutherland’ vibes.

All Curls:

The all curls route concept is a very basic idea that sees the quarterback and receivers reading the depth that defenders are giving them and making a determination to curl at typically 5 or 7 yards although it can be pushed further down field depending on down and distance (it would be silly to push a curl to 10 yards when all you need is 3 yards for a first down). A key for the effectiveness of this is sure handed wide receivers with a quarterback who can throw to the shoulder that will lead the receiver to open field since they will have turned and stopped their momentum.