Graham Harrell left Texas Tech as one of the most prolific quarterbacks in NCAA history.
Even after guiding the Red Raiders to the cusp of the national championship game and finishing fourth in the Heisman Trophy balloting after throwing for 5,111 yards as a senior in 2008, Harrell wasn’t drafted in 2009. Wasn’t signed as undrafted free agent. Wasn’t given a contract after participating in the Browns’ rookie camp on a tryout basis.
Harrell spent the year in the Canadian Football League with Saskatchewan but didn’t throw a pass all season. He was hired in January by Oklahoma State to be a quality control coach for the offense until CFL training camp got under way. Released by Saskatchewan so he could pursue his NFL dreams, the Browns gave him another look after the 2010 draft but again didn’t sign him.
Finally, Harrell is getting his first realistic chance in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers.
Harrell, who was signed two weeks ago as a better long-term prospect than Chris Pizzotti, will challenge undrafted rookie Noah Shepard to be either the third quarterback on the 53-man roster or the quarterback on the eight-man practice squad.
“I hope I can (beat out Shepard),” Harrell, tucked away in the dark back corner of the auxiliary locker room, told a handful of reporters on Wednesday. “I’m just excited about the opportunity, excited to be here in Green Bay — probably one of the greatest franchises in the NFL.”
For better and worse, Harrell’s jaw-dropping numbers were a byproduct of former Red Raiders coach Mike Leach, who is one of the most innovative offensive minds the college game has ever seen.
“The history isn’t good,” Harrell acknowledged of Texas Tech quarterbacks.
Following the likes of Kliff Kingsbury and B.J. Symons, Harrell finished with an NCAA-record 134 touchdown passes. Harrell, however, was slapped with the dreaded stigma of “system quarterback.” Any quarterback with half an arm and a reasonable IQ could duplicate what Harrell accomplished, especially with Michael Crabtree as his primary target.
At only 6-foot-2 and without an elite arm, NFL talent evaluators didn’t think Harrell’s prolific collegiate production could translate to the professional ranks.
“With the history Tech’s had — we’ve had lots of quarterbacks that have thrown for a million yards and for whatever reason didn’t make it,” Harrell said. “So, there’s a stereotype to break with Tech. That’s part of it. At the same time, I’m just excited about this opportunity and very glad to be here.”
Both Harrell and Shepard saw limited reps during the 11-on-11 periods of Wednesday’s organized team activity. While Shepard is an impressive athlete with a scattershot arm, Harrell is a polished passer with a feel for the game. On his first snap of 11-on-11, Harrell scanned the field and hit James Jones, floating the ball just over the outstretched fingers of Jarrett Bush and right into Jones’ hands at the sideline.
“We really felt Graham came in and had a heck of a workout,” coach Mike McCarthy said. “He had the opportunity in Cleveland and had some very good college tape, and had some very good grades from our scouting department. I was impressed with his velocity. That’s something that was probably a little in question coming out of college in my opinion. But I thought he had a very good workout, and we felt it was a chance to give him an opportunity. I think Graham is someone who has a chance to be a quarterback in the National Football League.”
Told of McCarthy’s comment on surprising arm strength, Harrell flashed the smile of someone who had heard those questions for far too long.
“Going to Canada, it makes you make big throws,” he said. “It’s a wider field, a longer field, more players. I think going up there was a great experience. Whether it improved my arm strength, it definitely helped make bigger throws, because it forced you to do that. I think that was one thing that kind of helped.”
To be sure, Harrell is the underdog in his battle with Shepard. Shepard is one of only two quarterbacks the Packers worked out before the draft, and they pounced after the draft. The Packers like his ability to run and pass so much that they kept him rather than the more polished Pizzotti when they decided to give Harrell his first NFL contract.
“I always thought that I’d get a chance sooner or later,” Harrell said. “I got to go up to Canada, which was a great time, but your ultimate goal is still to be in the States. When this opportunity arose, I jumped on it. I’m grateful to be here and will do whatever I can to help the team.”
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.
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