Graham Harrell’s Air Raid Brain Trust

Antonio Morales (The Athletic)  —  LOS ANGELES — Team Texas carpools to work together. Its members work out together. They eat together. They mob the offensive staff meeting room together. If one of them is doing something, odds are the others are doing it as well.

“We basically do everything together,” one member said, “until we go to bed.”

This team is comprised of four members. It’s headlined by USC’s offensive coordinator Graham Harrell. Trojans recruiting graduate assistant Paul “Drew” Fox is also in the group.

The other half is made up of Seth Doege and John David Baker, who both hold the title of offensive quality control analyst at USC. Even though most of their work is done in the background, Doege and Baker play an important role for the Trojans’ offense.

When Harrell accepted Clay Helton’s offer in late January, USC already had an offensive line coach. It had a receivers coach in place, too. Ditto for running backs and tight ends.

So there wasn’t much of an opportunity for Harrell to bring in coaches who he worked with previously or who shared a philosophy similar to his. That’s where Doege and Baker step in.

Both have deep, established ties to Harrell. They both came up through the Air Raid, either as a player or a coach. And now it’s up to these two Texans to help ensure the Trojans’ transition to the Air Raid unfolds as smoothly as possible.

“Graham wanted as many people who believed in the same (things) he did around him,” Doege said. “ Now he’s got two guys who believe in the system the (same) way he believes in doing things. … It’s an easier transition for him. 

“That role is huge for us and I think was huge for him as well.”

It was still in the thick of the recruiting home stretch when Helton placed a call to Harrell this January and expressed his interest in the young, then-North Texas, offensive coordinator.

Baker met Harrell during his early years at Abilene Christian, which is where he played alongside and was good friends with Harrell’s younger brother, Clark. Baker and Graham Harrell hit it off and eventually became good friends. When Harrell was hired as North Texas’ offensive coordinator, he brought Baker on as an offensive quality control coach.

They’re colleagues but their relationship is based on friendship. After Harrell received that call from Helton, he put in a call to Baker (below).

“He starts reaching out, like, ‘Hey, I’m on the road, do some research on this deal,’” Baker recalled. “Because during the season you get stuck in your little bubble and you’re not sure what else is going on around the country and all that. I started looking into their record last year, what had happened. Like most people, we have a database of a lot of people’s films. So we had two or three games of USC’s so I got on their server, watched some of their games and kind of gave him my two cents of what I thought about the situation and the opportunity that it was.”

Whenever opportunities arose for Harrell this past coaching carousel, there was an understanding. If Harrell were to leave North Texas, Baker would go with him wherever he landed if he didn’t stick with the Mean Green in a full-time capacity.

Harrell accepted the job on January 28, then “the next thing I know,” Baker said, “I was on a plane to Los Angeles.”

Baker didn’t play in the Air Raid. Abilene Christian’s offense was more pro-style than anything else. A lot of formations. A lot of shifts. A lot of verbiage. All that stuff. But this will be his fourth consecutive season coaching with Harrell, so he has a good grasp on it now.

Doege’s connection to Harrell and the Air Raid go further back. When Seth and Graham were still young children back in 1990, Randy Doege, Seth’s father, was an assistant for first-time head coach Sam Harrell, Graham’s father, at Reagan County High School in Big Lake, Texas.

Graham Harrell (upper left in the blue and yellow-striped shirt) and Seth Doege (bottom right in the red shirt) as children in Texas. (Photo: Sam Harrell)

Growing up in West Texas, Texas Tech was Doege’s dream school. He looked up to quarterbacks such as Kliff Kingsbury, BJ Symons and Cody Hodges like they were his idols. Then Harrell arrived in the mid-2000s and raised the bar.

Doege committed to Texas Tech before his junior year but torn ACLs cost him his junior and senior seasons.

“It was a tough time I was going through,” Doege said. “(Graham) would come by and pick me up and take me places to kind of get my mind off it. He knew that I looked up to him so he was kind of a mentor in that aspect.”

Their time at Texas Tech overlapped in 2008 when Doege redshirted and Harrell led the Red Raiders to 11 wins and as high as No. 2 in the AP poll. Doege eventually became the starting quarterback in 2011 and finished his career with 8,636 yards and 69 touchdown passes.

After spending a few seasons in the NFL and CFL, Doege secured a graduate assistant role on Mike Jinks’ Bowling Green staff. Doege was eventually promoted to receivers coach (and added special teams coordinator to his title as well) in 2017 and spent the past two seasons in that role.

Jinks was fired seven games into the 2018 season, however, and landed at USC as the Trojans’ running backs coach shortly after Kingsbury accepted the offensive coordinator job in December.

Meanwhile, Doege was transitioning and looking for a new role. He and Jinks remained in contact. When Kingsbury, who would leave after a month to become the Arizona Cardinals head coach, took the offensive coordinator job, Doege initially expressed his interest.

“Jinks felt like there might be an opportunity,” Doege said. “When Graham got the job, I reached out to him and congratulated him. Just because he’s a friend of mine and I was excited for him. I told him the same thing, ‘Listen, man, if you need someone that believes in the same thing you do, I’m there.’ I think that’s what it came down to.

“(And) this was an elite, Cadillac school you want to be a part of.”

Prior to arriving at USC, Harrell’s coaching stops were Washington State and North Texas. Baker GA’d at Abilene Christian and spent three years with the Mean Green. All of Doege’s coaching career was spent at Bowling Green.

All of that to say they haven’t spent any time coaching at one of the traditional blueblood programs like they are currently. Now Team Texas has access to some of the nation’s elite athletes.

“I mean, you look at Oklahoma and they’re doing the same thing,” Doege said. “You see the success that they’re having so with us simplifying things for these elite athletes, you’re USC and you’re playing with a different breed of player. If they buy in, which they have, it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch them go execute this offense.”

But first things first, and that’s the transition. USC’s offense performed poorly last season and lacked any sort of identity. Now it’s making a major shift to an offense most of its offensive staff and players aren’t accustomed to playing.

“Coming in that was my main goal — to be a resource,” Baker said. “Any question I could answer, any little tip I could give, that’s all I tried to do. There are a lot of different ways to skin a cat and we believe in the way that we do it. I’ve seen it done a couple different ways now, so I’ve tried to give our coaches and our players as much knowledge as I can so they can try to make it their own.

“There are a lot of different versions of the Air Raid, or what people claim to be the Air Raid, and what’s special is when people try to find their own niche and they get really good at it. You try not to overcoach anything, just let the players play, let them play freely and let their talents come to fruition.”

Doege described his and Baker’s role as consultants. They’re here to help these coaches, communicate with staff and players about install and how it all works, and essentially serve as Harrell’s eyes and ears.

Harrell often said that it takes only three or four days to install his offense. Baker and Doege said the Trojans’ players and staff were able to pick things up quickly.

What they helped with was sorting out the minor details of the system. There were several times Doege recalled running back Vavae Malepeai or receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown coming off the sideline saying, “This is the easiest stuff.”

“They were productive and had some good runs here at USC with what they were doing,” Doege said, “but it’s refreshing to these kids to be able to just play. Don’t get me wrong, it’s simple but there are a lot of details being coached at the same time. That’s what makes the offense great. These kids, like Amon-Ra and Vae, they love the tempo of it. They love they can just go out there and play and not have to think so much. That’s the best thing I’ve seen. … That gives me a lot of hope, too.”

There were plenty of occasions last season when the Trojans’ offense seemed hopeless. So the sound of optimism has been welcomed by USC’s supporters.

Team Texas’ camaraderie extends to the basketball court as well. They’ve adopted Gavin Morris — USC’s director of player development who likes to add Team Crenshaw to the title — as an honorary fifth member and Baker estimates their record against some of the Trojans’ other staffers is something around 25-1.

It’s a fact the group isn’t shy about sharing around the football office either.

“A lot of people have their opinion of what Team Texas is,” Baker said. “Some people call it an arrogance. Some people call it a confidence. Everybody’s got their opinion of what it is.”

There were times during spring practice when the group wore similar gear to practice and sported similar facial hair, which made it particularly difficult when attempting to tell one apart from the other.

But the united focus remains on reviving USC’s offense. How that unfolds could determine the length of Teams Texas’ stay at USC — for better or worse.

“This is the elite of the elite,” Doege said. “I know there’s some negative about the program out there right now and there are some expectations we have to win and win now. I wouldn’t have it any other way, to be honest with you. Because that’s just a challenge. If you know Graham, if you know Coach Jinks, if you know John David and the rest of the staff, they’re extremely competitive people.

“That kind of puts a cherry on top for us.”

the athletic.com

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TrojanMPA90
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I have to say I’m very impressed by Harrell and his group. I expect a lot of good things on offense this year. I really hope the defense is simplified as was the plan and that we are better next season. This season will determine Clay’s fate more than anything.

TrojanRJJ
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TrojanRJJ
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The level of incompetence in the 2018 staff is highlighted by the arrival of AA and his staff and “Team Texas” and the immediate impact they are having. It is quite clear AA has significantly improved the culture. It is also quite clear that GH is a huge upgrade over Clay and Tee. Problem is we still have Clay, Clancy & Baxter. I wonder if Clay is over his denial yet. Last I heard, he was still spouting denial claiming that last year was only a couple of plays away from being successful. I would feel a lot more comfortable… Read more »

Steveg
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Steveg
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When someone is in denial that 2018 was a disaster, it is a sign that he learned zero from it. If he had not been told to make certain changes I am sure we would be back with the same staff and gumbo offense with the same attitude by the team toward the game itself.

TrojanRJJ
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TrojanRJJ
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I am seeing some signs that he might actually be figuring out just how badly he messed up. First, he is not the one on the speaking tour. GH went to San Diego, not Clay. Second, he has to be reading the publicity on the impact AA is having. Denial is very powerful, particularly on a person who lacks the ability to learn from mistakes. My view has always been: stupid people make the same mistake over and over and blame others; smart people learn from their mistakes; really smart and successful people learn from others mistakes as well as… Read more »

Jamaica
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There is no positive future for Clay Helton at USC. He should either resign after his contract is up or is let go by Dr. Folt (preferrable). Nothing less. He is the luckiest football coach I have ever seen with how he got and kept his HC position here but never proved he deserved it. I don’t feel sorry for him in the least as he has his millions to live on.

Steveg
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Steveg
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I think after his 3rd year USC should have cut ties with Helton. He did do what was asked of him in the beginning. He brought USC out of total chaos and did that well. After that, zip zero, nada.

Paul_Muad_dib
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I totally agree. He should resign to save face. Even if USC is successful, GH will move on to a better job or just make Helton look like an impostor as head coach.

Old_Trojans_never_die
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One of the major drawbacks to last year’s coaching staff was the appearance of disconnect. In fact it was pointed out that there were not enough men on the field for PAT tries and other special teams play. There was unnecessary time outs taken and the players seemed to be running the show. Seeing a group of coaches working together is a good thing. I don’t care what they are called off the field as long as they are called Trojans on the field. Some may ask where does Helton fit in this scheme? That’s simple he’s familiar with the… Read more »

Steveg
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Steveg
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If he sits down and shuts up then perhaps we can see success in the offense. Problem I see is that we still have Clancy and we all know defense is huge in terms of gaining success on the field. We have heard all the talk about how the defense has been simplified. Right now it is just that, all talk. Two guys that need to go are Clancy and Baxter. Clancy because he has shown what he can do with talent, which is not much, and Baxter because he is a clone of Clay and one Helton in the… Read more »

rleeholder1
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I agree 100%. I’m hoping Dr. Folt gets rid of the “Blindsided One” and that a replacement would hire Jack Del Rio as HC in 2020. If Jack came in now as a DC, that would be huge. He was an All-American Linebacker at SC and knows defense. He has no problem disciplining players and that’s what SC needs desperately, IMO.

Steveg
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Steveg
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Blindside needs to go before Helton so we can assure Blindside will not be the one doing the hiring.

Paul_Muad_dib
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Blindsided one lol

TrojanRJJ
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Steve, You nailed it on Clancy. Dan Weber talked to the kids on D and NOTHING substantial was changed on D. The only changes were linguistic – the language used to call the Ds was simplified. That’s it. Our D was awful last year (bottom half, about 60 out of 120). Clancy’s Ds have gotten worse year by year. The only substantive change I can see is the switch to the 4-3 and the admission that SC D’s last year was really bad at gap control. It was also really bad at setting the edge, penalties, and giving up large… Read more »