For better or worse when you boil it all down Penn State football has gone through four offensive coordinators in five years. It’s just a fact of life kickstarted by Joe Moorhead’s departure, Ricky Rahne’s own rising stock and now the hiring of Mike Yurcich following the otherwise underwhelming COVID impacted tenure of Kirk Ciarrocca.
Beyond the rotating door of coordinators there is an interesting reality: Penn State’s offense – for the most part – hasn’t really changed.
Obviously this is not entirely true, there are nuances along the way but the nuts and bolts haven’t changed all that much since Moorhead’s departure. If anything the single biggest factor in the success of Penn State’s offense might be the personnel running the plays as much as the people calling and designing them.
Which brings up a natural question to ask: what exactly does Coordinator A do that B,C and D didn’t?
“Obviously there’s packaging, that’s different, but everybody’s kind of running the same plays,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said earlier this spring. “Their concepts, their horizontal stretches, their high lows, their vertical passing game, there’s the RPOs. There’s those types of things.”
There is an added benefit to this general continuity as well, when people talk about “learning a new offense” in reality its not so much a new set of concepts as it is a reimagining of the old ones. So in turn, for the likes of quarterback Sean Clifford, now on his third offensive coordinator in as many years, the ongoing shifts aren’t as drastic as they might seem.
“Sean has experienced those and has got a pretty good understanding and all of that knowledge,” Franklin added. “He’s able to kind of put things into into families. Everybody’s kind of run in the same plays, it’s how you package them all together.”
Talking to Franklin a secondary question comes to mind as well: What exactly is he looking for out of an offense? Everyone wants to watch the Moorhead era of the 2016 and 2017 seasons again, but so many plays were the result of individual playmakers as they were the overall concepts that put them in the right place at the right time. It’s a balance to be sure, but Saquon Barkley made his name out of making something out of nothing.
The answer is somewhat – lengthy – but no less interesting.
“Being multiple,” Franklin said first. “Being able to line up in empty, being able to line up and three wides, being able to line up in and maybe three wide personnel but from a spread set with the tight end lining up as a wide receiver or connected to the to the offensive line. Whether that’s getting in 12 personnel and really being able to run everything whether it’s spread sets whether it’s getting into more traditional sets with a true tight end and and you know what what you could probably describe as an H-back a movement guy which is really what we did a lot of it at Vanderbilt.
“Then I think tempo is important because tempo is a weapon and again if you don’t have true tempo in your offense it’s hard to get your defense ready for it. And to be honest with you we’ve never been tempo, we’ve really never been tempo we’ve been no huddle and we’ve been look-look but we’ve never really been no huddle.”
“I think we have done a pretty good job at is being explosive. You’ve got to be explosive on offense and then the last one is you got to be ball secure. We’ve done a pretty good job of that over our time here, we did not do a good job of that last year.”
So to summarize, an offense with the ability to give a defense multiple looks, an offense that runs at a higher tempo pace, and an offense that is capable of generating explosive plays.
At face value, none of this comes as a real shock, this isn’t the football of the 90s where it’s a race to the 20s and defense rules the day. You’ve got to score points, be explosive and tire out of the opposition. Franklin’s desire to have an offense that is “good” doesn’t exactly surprise anyone.
How close Yurcich gets to Franklin’s ideal system remains to be seen, a quest that might not have been successful in the past.
“I know there’s been coaches that I’ve interviewed and hired and they’ve sold themselves as as tempo guys but then we weren’t really that,” Franklin added.
As an aside, it’s hard to know exactly who Franklin is referencing here. John Donovan was a carryover from Vanderbilt, Moorhead didn’t exactly run an up-tempo offense but it checked off so many other boxes that one would be hard pressed to fault him for that. Rahne was promoted and nothing about Minnesota’s plodding but efficient offense should have led Franklin to believe Ciarrocca was going to suddenly turn into a no-huddle mastermind.
Nevertheless, Franklin is still looking, and in 2021 hoping to have found the right balance of everything he wants. Not to mention the other side of the coin, an offense that prepares Brent Pry’s defense for the kinds of things it’ll see in Big Ten play.
Imitation might be a form of flattery, but it’s also a good form of preparation.
“Again for me I’m always looking at it as how does it prepare our offense and our defense I think that’s where you have to be careful. Some of these spread teams, they score 60 points a game but they give up 58 or 64 points a game and you have to be very very careful as an offensive head coach that everything isn’t tilted towards the offense and you put your defense in a very challenging situation.”
So the differences between four offensive coordinators on the surface? Not a whole lot, but it’s the nuances that might make the difference. That’s at least the hope.