LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) -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 ever 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 scout who writes for NFL.com. ``He is mentally and physically tough as nails. He's like Coach (Bob) Knight. That's the kind of competitive mentality he has.''
his 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 Harrell 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 Harrell, who coached his son in high school at Ennis, just south of Dallas.
There, Harrell led an offense similar to the Red Raider 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.
some big wins.
Two weeks ago, Harrell heaved a 28-yard pass to All-American receiver Michael Crabtree with 1 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 touchdown passes to beat Oklahoma State 56-20 for a second-straight 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. ``Coming out of high school, that's very appealing ... it was just the best fit for me.''
Leach's recruiting style added something, too.
Whether it was a card trick or ramblings about his time coaching football in Finland, the coach made an impression on a personal level when he came to Ennis.
``It's an experience like none other,'' Harrell said. ``There's no doubt he keeps it light. You're going have laughs with Coach Leach every day.''
There were probably fewer laughs before 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.
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 then-No. 21 Virginia 31-28.
``He doesn't have a cannon for an arm, but it's strong enough,'' Brandt, the former scout, said. ``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, 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.''
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Kingsbury, who flirted with an NFL career after leaving Tech, said Harrell has had the benefit of being around Leach's offense for five years. Harrell's got 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.
Ironically, if the rankings remain where they are, Texas Tech could be facing No. 1 Alabama in Miami on Jan. 8, 2009, 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. ``You think anybody three years ago thought there'd be the possibility that (the two teams) could be playing for the national championship?''

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