In Texas, a bit of Montana
Tech QB playing like his NFL idol
LUBBOCK, Texas - Fooling around with a label maker in fourth grade, Graham Harrell punched out his football dream one letter at a time.
"THE NEXT JOE MONTANA - GRAHAM HARRELL"
The quarterback for No. 2 Texas Tech was about 10 when he tacked the caption to the bottom of a poster of his favorite NFL player.
Harrell's not in that league yet, but if the fifth-year senior continues to perform as he has this season, he's got a good shot at playing on Sundays - and at winning the Heisman Trophy along the way.
The Texas native has guided the unbeaten Red Raiders to their highest ranking and the inside track to the national title game, though they'll face another huge hurdle next week when they play at No. 5 Oklahoma.
"The guy is a clutch player," said Gil Brandt, a former Dallas Cowboys executive who writes for NFL.com. "He is mentally and physically tough as nails."
Although Harrell has played much of this season in the shadow of another Texan - Colt McCoy - a 10-0 start highlighted by spectacular, prime-time wins over the Longhorns and Oklahoma State have made him one of college football's biggest stars.
Harrell's arrival has been a long time coming - see Joe Montana, above - and he's put in years of work to make it happen.
"He's a quiet, easygoing guy until he gets on the field," said Graham's dad, Sam, who coached his son in high school at Ennis, just south of Dallas.
There, Harrell led an offense similar to the Red Raiders' attack, run exclusively out of the shotgun. By the time he graduated, he'd set Texas state records for single-season passing yards (4,825 in 15 games), career passing yards (12,532 with 167 TDs), and single-season touchdown passes (67).
That career earned him scholarship offers from Georgia, North Carolina State, Arizona State, and Oklahoma. But he settled on Texas Tech, becoming the first highly touted quarterback to run coach Mike Leach's pass-happy offense.
With a 12-game winning streak dating back to last season, he's lived up to his billing.
This season he's already thrown for 4,077 yards and 36 touchdowns. Combine his high school and college yards and the 23-year-old QB has thrown for more than 15 1/2 miles.
Yes, his gaudy numbers owe something to Leach's scheme. But this year Harrell's accuracy, poise, and leadership have helped the team earn some big wins.
Two weeks ago, Harrell heaved a 28-yard pass to All-America receiver Michael Crabtree with one second remaining to topple then-No. 1 Texas. He followed up that epic win, the program's first over a top-ranked team, with six TD passes to beat Oklahoma State, 56-20, for another win over a top-10 team.
Harrell always saw Leach's offense at Texas Tech as a match for his talents.
"It's a quarterback's dream to get to throw the ball 50 times a game and play in a system like this," Harrell said.
Harrell was named the starter in 2006. He fought it out with Chris Todd, a quarterback Leach mined out of Kentucky, where'd he had coached before. Harrell beat out Todd, and the Kentucky quarterback transferred to a junior college in Kansas and now plays at Auburn.
Once at the helm, Harrell's talents blossomed and he displayed his pluck late in each of the past two bowl games.
In the 2006 Insight Bowl, Harrell threw for two TDS and ran for another in helping the Red Raiders pull off the biggest comeback in bowl history - 31 points - to beat Minnesota, 44-41, in overtime. Then, in last year's Gator Bowl, Harrell threw for two touchdowns as Texas Tech rallied for 17 points in the final four minutes to beat Virginia, 31-28.
"He doesn't have a cannon for an arm, but it's strong enough," said Brandt. "He doesn't run like Vince Young but he's able to avoid the rush. He's really an individual without a weakness.
"More than anything he knows how to win and has supreme confidence in his ability."
The 6-foot-3-inch, 205-pound Harrell has another reason to be confident. The Red Raiders have gained more than 100 yards on the ground in every game this season. Texas Tech has gone from 119th in rushing, last in the NCAA with 59 yards per game, to 76th this season with 132.6 yards per game.
Going to a running play at the line "takes pressure off Graham," said Sonny Cumbie, another of Leach's quarterbacks, who threw for 4,472 yards in 2004. "This year, he knows it's going to work."
Harrell is only the second three-year starter since Leach arrived in 2000. First to implement Leach's mad-scientist passing schemes was Kliff Kingsbury, who threw for 5,017 yards and 45 TDs in 2002, the last of his three years as a starter, when he set more than a dozen NCAA records.
Kingsbury, who was drafted by the Patriots (sixth round, 2001) and appeared in one game (for the Jets in 2005), said Harrell has had the benefit of being around Leach's offense for five years. Harrell has smarts and poise, both necessary to make reads without panicking, he said.
"It's just second nature to him," he said. "At this point he seems to see more clearly. Any nervous sense of failure is out the window."
Before he gets a chance to move up to the NFL, Harrell relishes the idea of playing for the national championship.
If the rankings remain where they are, Texas Tech could be facing No. 1 Alabama in Miami Jan. 8, nearly three years after the Crimson Tide sneaked past the Red Raiders in the Cotton Bowl.
A low and wobbly kick from 45 yards out somehow twirled far enough to sneak inside the goal post as time expired, giving Alabama a 13-10 victory. Harrell played only briefly when Cody Hodges went out with an injury.
Harrell has grown since that loss.
"He's taken this underdog team, put it on his back, and led them to great national success," Brandt said.