September 21, 2014

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It’s proving time: Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell trying to show he’s not just a system QB and that he belongs in the NFL

BEREA — Graham Harrell is starting over.
The NCAA-record 134 career touchdown passes are in the past. The fourth-place finish in last season’s Heisman Trophy voting is forgotten. Texas Tech’s top-five ranking and stirring comeback over Texas are distant memories.
Harrell went undrafted last weekend and was invited to the Browns rookie minicamp on a tryout. He wasn’t offered a contract, so nothing is guaranteed beyond Sunday.
Harrell has a lot to prove in three days.
He has to prove he isn’t simply a product of Texas Tech’s spread offense. He has to prove his arm is strong enough for the NFL. He has to prove he can pick up the Browns’ complex offense overnight.
“It’s very exciting,” Harrell said Friday between practices. “I’m just glad they gave me a shot.”
Harrell wasn’t drafted, despite throwing for 15,793 yards, the second most in NCAA history. As a senior, he threw 45 touchdown passes and completed 71 percent of his passes. He said a few NFL teams offered him tryouts, but his agent recommended the Browns.
“You just have to go out and compete,” he said. “I love to compete, I love the game of football, I just love being around the game.
“I have to show that it’s not just the system I played in in college. That I can make throws, I can take snaps, I can take drops. And learn and mold into a system that they want to run here.”
Harrell’s size (6-foot-2, 223 pounds) and arm strength (average) were negatives in the draft process. So was the Red Raiders’ spread offense that created the gaudy statistics and required him to play out of the shotgun almost exclusively.
“That’s the way it is,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with past quarterbacks who have come out of spread systems haven’t had a ton of success in the league.
“I had a blast and we had a great year. I don’t regret anything that happened last season.”
First-year Browns coach Eric Mangini said Harrell made a good first impression.
“This is really challenging for a quarterback,” Mangini said. “All the terminology is new to all the people, and the quarterback’s in charge of being right.
“For me, it’s about the quarterback’s ability to operate the system. That’s what I’m looking for as a starting point, then you have to look at the range of throws.”
So, how did his arm look?
“I thought he was accurate in the first two practices,” Mangini said.
Harrell joined the Browns’ seven draft picks, 14 free-agent signees and numerous tryouts. They had their first meeting Thursday night, first practice Friday morning and first media session Friday afternoon.
Harrell had to share a locker with Brent Casteel, a free-agent receiver from Utah, but he did get a long-sleeved Browns T-shirt with “Harrell” on the back.
“Graham’s working hard,” said center Alex Mack, a first-round pick. “Everyone starts over again at ground zero and works their way up.”
The Browns’ quarterback situation is far from settled, so Harrell has a chance to stick around, perhaps on the practice squad. Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson will compete for the starting job in training camp, and Brett Ratliff was acquired from the Jets in a draft-day trade.
“Maybe I can just learn behind them,” said Harrell, who split reps Friday with Richard Bartel, a late-season acquisition last year. “Those guys have done some great things here and are some great players.”
Harrell’s college coach, Mike Leach, created a bit of a stir on draft day when Red Raiders receiver Michael Crabtree slipped to No. 10. Leach blamed Mangini for a Cleveland newspaper report that said the Browns had soured on Crabtree because of his “diva” attitude.
Harrell said he’s talked to Leach since accepting the Browns’ invitation, but Leach didn’t say anything about Mangini.
“Coach was good to me while I was there and he has his strengths,” Harrell said. “But Coach Mangini gave me an opportunity and he’s been great and the staff here’s been great, so I appreciate them as well.”
Mangini dismissed the notion he had a problem with Crabtree.
“I had a good visit with Michael,” he said. “I’m really happy he got drafted where he got drafted. I think he’ll have a great career. I said that after his visit, and nothing’s changed.”
For Harrell, his whole world has changed. And when Sunday comes, he could be faced with yet another new reality: life after football.
“I haven’t thought too much about it,” he said. “But I do know I’ll coach someday.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com.