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Penn State Football: Ciarrocca Hoping to Hit All the Right Notes as Nittany Lion Offense Starts New Chapter

by on February 05, 2020 3:40 PM

Penn State football has tasked Kirk Ciarrocca with a unique challenge as he becomes the fourth offensive coordinator under James Franklin.

It is not so much a charge that requires broad innovation, nor one which asks he find some drastically new answer to the Nittany Lions' offensive attack. If John Donovan was asked to help Penn State survive, Joe Moorhead to redefine and Ricky Rahne to sustain, Ciarrocca has arrived on campus to squeeze just a bit more juice out of the orange.

Because Penn State football has not struggled in a grand systematic sense the past several seasons. The Nittany Lions have pretty much scored more than enough points to win the vast majority of their games. They have beaten lesser teams with relative ease and for the vast majority of their games against the few teams better than them, held their own.

So the hiring of Ciarrocca isn't a question of reinventing the wheel; it's a matter of getting the car to run 5% more efficiently, 5% more consistent and 5% more dependable in the moments it has to face its steepest climbs.

"We've been fairly successful over the last number of years, and with different coordinators," Penn State coach James Franklin said on Wednesday. "So I don't feel like we need to go hire someone, blow it up and start all over. Do we have someone that's experienced enough and has enough humility that will come in and say, okay, I'm secure enough and comfortable enough that this is how I do things, and there's core beliefs that I'm not willing to budge on, but here's other things where I'm smart enough and I've been in the business long enough, the areas where I can learn it and take some of the learning off the players will do that."

In reality if one assumes Ciarrocca's success at Minnesota will translate to the same kind of success Penn State has been having over the past several years, it's a question of what he does in the biggest moments. It's almost an unfair burden, to be judged not by the 10 games you win, a mark higher than the vast majority of the country, but by the two games you might lose. And yet as Ciarrocca takes over the play sheet, fans will wait in anticipation of that first big game. All things being equal, that's when they'll truly start to judge.

So what's the key to getting over the hump? How does Ciarrocca approach the game?

In his own words, there are a few things that are the difference in good and bad offensive football. The first a key to his success at Minnesota and an inevitable upgrade as he dips his hands in Penn State's roster.

"I've been doing this a long time. And I've been in the penthouse in the outhouse," Ciarrocca said on Wednesday. "And the common denominator...was every time I've been in the penthouse I've had a really good players around me. So we had a really good players. But I think it's a system that that we've developed that fits, and you know it has answers. And we know what the answers are, and we know how to move our pieces. As the defensive people move their pieces and put ourselves in the best possible situation for our guys to execute."

To expand, Ciarrocca laughed as he recalled a question every recruiting coordinator asks him: "What kind of quarterback do you want?" he says. And the answer is always the same: "A good one."

Ciarrocca will have the increasingly steady hand of probable second year starter Sean Clifford as well as a host of other talented prospects from a stacked running back room to an equally deep tight end corps. The question of course, as has been the case for the past two seasons, the ability to produce consistently at the receiver position. The key there is the same as it is for anyone on a football team. Execution.

"I believe in execution," Ciarrocca added. "So when you're talking about execution you're talking about alignment, assignment and technique. And in order to execute something you have to do it right, but in order to do it, if all things being equal, the guy with the better technique who has better details is fundamentally sound (will win.)"

"Every play right there's another guy across from you that has an assignment to. And so, if I can do what I'm supposed to do better than he can do what he's supposed to do, I'm gonna win that battle. And to me that all comes down to details, all things being equal with talent. and it's also an equalizer for whenever that guy might be just a little bit more talented than you, but your details and fundamentals are better."

And like all offensive coordinators in 2020, explosive plays will dictate a team's ability to get over that final hump. The Nittany Lions managed to generate their fair share of chunk plays, but inconsistent production by Penn State's receiving group and a sometimes hit-or-miss deep ball by Clifford rendered Penn State far less deadly from range than the likes of the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

The answer to that is more of the same in Ciarrocca's eyes. Football is complex in philosophy but not overly complicated in its basic tenants. The phrase made popular by New England Patriot's head coach Bill Belichick comes to mind: Do your job.

"So, where do those explosive plays come from. Well, not only from diagramming them. But you've got to have execution," Ciarrocca said. "You might have a great receiver out here, and you diagram this great play to get him one on one. But if the other 10 guys don't do their job. It's not gonna happen, you're gonna all be sitting there saying what a terrible play card, you know, why didn't that work. That [Ciarrocca] is a dummy."

"But when the all 11 guys are executing together that's where the explosive plays start to happen. And then you've got to put your guys in positive situations, right, that also helps the execution and helps get those explosive plays. Offensive football to me is the ultimate team game, you are so dependent upon all 11 guys trusting each other that they're going to do their job, and we've got to do it together."

There are 262 days until Penn State takes the field against Ohio State. It's a long time and a short time for the likes of James Franklin, Ryan Day and Ciarrocca. All three will be judged by many things, the result of that game among the most important.

But like every coach in America, they will spend the next several months trying to get their teams to play the same song. The tune coming out of the Lasch Building will largely sound the same, Ciarrocca is not at Penn State to write a new symphony, he has arrived to make sure all of the soloists hit the high notes, wowing the crowd with the dexterity and skill needed to perform at a high level.

"An offense is kind of like an orchestra," Ciarrocca said with a smile. "If they're all playing in tune and everybody is doing their job it's beautiful to listen to. But if you've got somebody who doesn't know how to play the violin. I mean, it can sound awful right and that's what offensive football can look like sometimes when you don't have all 11 guys executing together, it looks awful. And I've seen it."

Penn State fans have seen it too, and if Ciarrocca's work in State College matches his resume, they are right to expect far more good notes than bad.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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