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Penn State’s Offensive Line Options: 10 Things...and People...to Know After the Departure of Matt Limegrover

by on December 31, 2019 8:30 PM

Now that Matt Limegrover is no longer Penn State’s offensive line coach, a few questions immediately come to mind:

Will new offensive-coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kirk Ciarrocca press James Franklin to hire a second Gophers assistant who knows his offense?

What role did/will Pat Flaherty — who has East Stroudsburg and Penn State roots, plus two Super Bowl rings, in his four decades as an O-line coach — have in his job this past season as consultant for Penn State?

Is Flaherty’s old East Stroudsburg linemate and equally uber-veteran line coach Harry Hiestand, who spent six years at Notre Dame and was fired Sunday by the Chicago Bears, an option — if only to pick his brain?

(Lest we forget: Franklin’s alma mater is East Stroudsburg, and thou didst...and still does...mold him.)

And is this another job where Franklin may consider an internal hire in the form of a promotion for tight end coach and Cotton Bowl 53-point play-caller Tyler Bowen?

We look at those questions and more, with the following O-Line List:

1. “Premier networking” on tap. The annual convention of the American Football Coaches Association will be held January 12-14, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn., a city that Franklin knows well. The AFCA convention will draw 6,000 coaches from across the nation and feature over 100 speakers. It bills itself as “the premier networking event for coaches from all around the country.”

If Franklin does not have a specific candidate as the certain No. 1 hire on his list, this will be an ideal one-stop shopping opportunity for him to quickly, easily and out of the limelight meet with a number of potential hires — a different tact than what Franklin did in December, when he said he jet-setted across the country into the wee hours interviewing candidates.

The 2016 AFCA convention in San Antonio helped Franklin net Limegrover; the two of them had a meeting there between January 10-13, 2016. Those dates are critical. Incumbent O-line coach Herb Hand left PSU for Auburn on January 11 and Limegrover’s hire was announced January 16. Franklin acted fast.

2. Limegrover was tethered to former O-coordinator Joe Moorhead, who was hired December 15, 2015. The two are Western PA products and even though Limegrover is five years JoeMo’s senior, the two have known each other dating back to their days in St. Bartholomew’s Elementary School. At the aforementioned 2016 convention, Moorhead politicked for Limegrover to be hired before he left Texas. (A link to the deep dive on the two, in “The Ultimate Primer on Matt Limegrover,” is here.) 

3. Successful O-coordinators rely heavily on their O-line coach. (Witness Moorhead/Limegrover.) Penn State’s new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca was OC/quarterbacks coach at Minnesota from 2017-19 and 2013-16 at Western Michigan, the entire seven years under head coach P.J. Fleck.

 Brian Callahan, the current Minnesota offensive line coach, had been with Fleck and Ciarrocca the entire seven years. At Western Michigan, Callahan coached the O-linemen. In his first season at Minnesota (2017), he coached the tight ends. The past two seasons with the Gophers — who face Auburn in the Outback Bowl on Wednesday — he coached the offensive line. Callahan’s bio is here.

There’s always a PSU/PA tie: All three worked with former longtime Penn State O-line/TE coach Bill Kenney at Western Michigan from 2013-16. Kenney, who coached the O-line at Penn State from 1988-2011, is still at Western Michigan; he coaches the tight ends and is recruiting coordinator.

4. Pat Flaherty — who has East Stroudsburg and Penn State ties — was one of Franklin’s on-staff consultants for Penn State’s 2019 season. Flaherty was an All-American O-lineman at East Stroudsburg, then coached the O-line there in 1980-81. He was an offensive line assistant coach at Penn State in 1982-83. He later coached at Rutgers and Iowa.

Flaherty had a stellar NFL coaching career, with Washington, Chicago, San Francisco, Jacksonville, Miami and the New York Giants. His longest stint was with the Giants, where he won two Super Bowl rings as the offensive line coach under Tom Coughlin from 2004-15. His assistant line coach in 2012 was Matt Ruhle, the State College and Penn State product who is now the head coach at Baylor and is considered a leading candidate to be the Giants’ next head coach. The Dolphins hired Flaherty in February 2019 to coach their O-line, but he was fired by head coach Brian Flores four days into training camp this past summer.

Flaherty played his high school football, and started his coaching career, at Delone Catholic High School in McSherrystown, Pa. — just 28 miles down Route 194 from Lewisberry, the hometown of Ciarrocca. Flaherty is 63; Ciarrocca is 54.

5. Harry Hiestand is another East Stroudsburg grad with extensive coaching experience. He’s looking for a job. Hiestand, who coached the Bears’ O-line in 2018-19, was fired Sunday. He has coached at a number of stops, including Notre Dame from 2012-2017, when he sent six Irish O-lineman to the NFL, and Illinois, where he was O-line coach (then associate head coach) from 1997-2004.

At East Stroudsburg, Hiestand played the O-line alongside Flaherty before an injury ended his playing career. Hiestand was a student assistant at East Stroudsburg (1981-82), then coached the O-line there from 1983-85 before embarking on a coaching career that took him to such college stops at Cincinnati, Missouri and Tennessee, as well as a first stint with Bears in 2005-09. He is 61. 

6. Ciarrocca’s offense is not big on throwing to the tight end. In his three seasons as the OC with the Gophers, tight ends caught a total of 31 passes — with 18 of those in 2017 and only 13 combined in 2018-19.

That certainly has to be of interest to Tyler Bowen, who coaches Penn State’s tight ends. After a shaky pass-heavy start, Bowen did a stellar job calling plays in the Nittany Lions’ 53-point outburst against Memphis in the Cotton Bowl. Bowen coached the offensive line at both Fordham (2015-16) and Maryland (2017).

Bowen was a grad assistant at Penn State in 2014, so he missed the two years LSU coaching phenom Joe Brady was a GA with the Nittany Lions (2015-16). But, like Brady, he is a member of the Joe Moorhead coaching tree and, like Brady, he’s 30 years old. Certainly, Bowen is aware of the great strides a contemporary like Brady has made the past few years, especially this season as the passing game coordinator/WR coach for CFP title game-bound LSU. Brady won the 2019 Broyles Award as the top assistant in college football.

Seeing what Brady has done, and given his own success in the bowl game, will Bowen be content coaching a tight end unit that statistics show Ciarrocca avoids in the passing game? 

7. Limegrover is a good guy. During the limited times he was available to talk with the media — at the 2017 Rose Bowl, preseason media days, an annual conference call — he was amiable, insightful, thorough and honest. From the media’s standpoint, you can’t ask for more than that.

8. Give Limegrover credit. During his four years at Penn State, the Nittany Lions were 42-11. Since he coached 55% of the offensive positions, he has to have had an influential hand in that.

9. NFL now. Two of the Penn State offensive lineman he spent three seasons coaching — Connor McGovern and Ryan Bates — were on NFL rosters in 2019. McGovern was a third-round draft pick of the Dallas Cowboys and Bates signed as an undrafted free agent with Philadelphia, then was traded to Buffalo. Bates has appeared on offense and special teams for the NFL playoff-bound Bills.

Bates was third-team All-Big Ten in 2017-18, while McGovern was third-team in 2018. In 2019, senior Steven Gonzalez — who started 42 games at Penn State — was named second-team All-Big Ten. Both Bates and McGovern started 35 games for the Nittany Lions.

10. There’s no guarantee of a straightforward offensive line coach hire. Given all of the above, perhaps some reshuffling of position coaching responsibilities may be on the horizon on the Nittany Lions staff — even if in nomenclature only. Franklin is permitted 10 on-the-field coaching assistants; nothing says the hire has to be strictly an O-line coach. 

Franklin loves to give out additional titles, so perhaps — at the least — the title of run game coordinator is in play. And, maybe, more pronounced coaching re-assignments are to come, and the Ciarrocca hire was (likely) a well-thought-out baseball-like double move.



Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for StateCollege.com since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/PSUPoorman. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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