Antonio Morales (The Athletic) — Mason Fine was a bit starstruck. He knew exactly who was visiting him at Locust Grove high school (Okla.) that day.
With only about two weeks remaining until 2016’s national signing day, North Texas’ pursuit of Fine, who was a two-star prospect at the time, had intensified. Then-Mean Green offensive coordinator Graham Harrell showed up to Locust Grove with the intention of making his sales pitch to Fine and verifying something else.
“Looking back on it, he wanted to come meet me to make sure I wasn’t 5-foot-8, 135 (pounds),” said Fine, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds by North Texas. “I remember him telling me that.”
The Mean Green gave Fine his only FBS scholarship offer. His alternative likely would have been becoming a preferred walk-on at Oklahoma State.
Obviously, Harrell faces a drastically different set of recruiting circumstances as USC’s offensive coordinator. It’s highly improbable he will recruit a 5-foot-8 quarterback or a signal caller with just one FBS scholarship offer while with the Trojans.
Now that Harrell is five months into the job, has gone through a spring evaluation period and just wrapped up several weeks of on-campus recruiting camps, what kind of first impression has he made with prospects on the recruiting trail?
Four-star 2021 quarterback prospect Miller Moss was pretty frank about his goal heading into USC’s second Elite Camp, which was held on June 19. The Bishop Alemany (Mission Hills, Calif.) signal caller’s sole objective that day was to make sure he left campus with a scholarship offer.
Moss performed well enough that Harrell asked him to stay a bit longer afterward, and the Trojans’ first-year offensive coordinator extended the offer Moss had sought for so long. Now that opens the door for Moss to build a relationship with Harrell.
Miller Moss@millermoss7Dreams do come true… humbled to have received a huge offer from THE University of Southern California #FightOn2:22 PM – Jun 19, 2019
When asked what makes Harrell different than other coaches he’s interacted with, Moss pointed to the way Harrell approaches the game — through his Air Raid philosophy and principles. But he also repeated the dialogue Harrell has with his players.
“He’s not just strictly rules guy,” Moss said. “He’s open to different things and really develops a relationship with his players.”
That falls in line with what Harrell’s former quarterbacks at North Texas had to say about him as well. Since Fine was a part of a transition recruiting class and they offered him late, he said his relationship with Harrell didn’t really grow until training camp of his freshman season. But he praised Harrell’s people skills and said he does a good job of understanding his players.
“(He’s) like a friend almost,” said quarterback Kason Martin, who signed with North Texas during the 2018 recruiting cycle. “Someone who has a lot of wisdom. He’s been through it himself so he knows what he likes, what he doesn’t like.”
Martin received an offer from the Mean Green during the spring of his junior year and committed two months later. He estimates Harrell called him once a week to check up on him during the season.
Like Fine, North Texas was Martin’s only FBS offer. Per his 247Sports recruiting profile, Moss holds offers from Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Georgia and Michigan, so the competition for Moss’ services will be tightly contested.
But USC — and Harrell — should have a pretty big say in how it all plays out.
“That’s one of the schools I grew up loving,” Moss said. “It’s definitely going to be a place of interest to me down the line.”
While Moss is just beginning to build a relationship with Harrell, USC’s 2020 quarterback commit, Bryce Young, the No. 1 dual-threat QB in the upcoming recruiting cycle who recently competed in the Elite 11 Finals, has spent the past five months developing a rapport with Harrell.
“First impression was how personable and cool of a guy he was,” Young said. “Especially in college football, it’s their job and livelihood as far as being coaches. Because of that, not everyone in the coaching world is as relatable or personable. Meeting Coach Harrell for the first time and knowing we don’t have to talk about just football stuff … We could talk Xs and Os all day but we could talk about stuff off the field, which you don’t find with every coach at the college level. I’m extremely excited to play for Coach Harrell.”
Young said he and Harrell text practically every day, which makes sense. Even though Young is currently committed to the Trojans, it won’t stop schools — like Alabama — from making a strong push for him.
It’s Young who is a priority for the immediate future. Moss and players like St. John Bosco receiver Beaux Collins will be highly-coveted prospects in the 2021 recruiting cycle.
It doesn’t seem like Harrell has done anything to hurt the Trojans’ chances so far.
“Just coming in as a new offensive coordinator, he had a lot to prove and he stepped up to the plate so far for me,” said Collins, who received an offer from Clay Helton after one of USC’s Rising Stars camps last summer. “(Harrell is) just a laid-back, genuine coach who wants to teach you before you even get there.”
Collins participated in USC’s Elite Camp last month and said the Trojans were “pretty high” on his list right now. He seemed impressed by Harrell’s energy given the situation he stepped into.
USC’s offense struggled last season and lacked a clear identity. That played a big part in the Trojans’ 5-7 season, and is one of the reasons Helton’s status seems so uncertain at the moment.
Harrell has stepped into a rebuilding situation with the Mean Green in 2016 and took over an offense that wasn’t producing. Over the course of three seasons, he turned North Texas’ offense into one of the best in Conference USA.
Make no mistake, Harrell hasn’t been under the same type of microscope he’ll be under in Los Angeles, but he’s had to sell an unproven product to players before.
“He’s probably more of a laid-back type of guy,” Fine said. “More (about) out the facts, more about the turnaround of the program and selling their culture. What they wanted to establish, how the foundation of the offense was going to be.”
USC’s been known as a pro-style offensive program for decades. So this shift to a wide-open, up-tempo attack is quite dramatic and will be interesting to watch unfold. But the Trojans, whose strength is at receiver, appears to have the personnel to make it work.
“His philosophy is USC has always had dudes on the outside,” Moss said, “but it’s never thrown the ball all over the place. That’s what they’re trying to do. They’re trying to utilize all the ridiculous athletes they have, get them in space and score points.”
Harrell spent two seasons coaching at Washington State, but most of his ties are in the state of Texas. He grew up there. His father Sam is a legendary high school coach there. He set records as a high school and college quarterback there. His reputation across the state — which was a plus in recruiting — is one of the reasons why Mean Green coach Seth Littrell handed him the keys to his offense despite the fact Harrell had never called plays before.
But this is obviously new terrain.
“The accent,” said Collins’ St. John Bosco teammate and four-star 2020 receiver Logan Loya said when asked for his first impression of Harrell. “Just noticing the accent first. (But) it was cool just his knowledge of the game, his passion for the game because I have that same passion for the game.
“He’s easy to talk to and be around. He’s a dude you want to play for.”