As Penn State’s new offensive coordinator, Kirk Ciarrocca got right to work after the Nittany Lions’ Cotton Bowl victory and put in a little more than two months before the coronavirus pandemic sent the players home and forced James Franklin and his staff to vacate the Lasch Football Building.
It wasn’t the most ideal way to start a job for Ciarrocca, a veteran of 30 years in college coaching who was Minnesota’s offensive coordinator for three seasons prior to accepting Franklin’s offer. But he hit it off with the staff right away and feels as comfortable as possible in how he’s progressed in installing an offense that is bound to have a few new wrinkles.
“I think it would have been a lot more difficult if this crisis would have started Jan. 4 and we would have been in a remote learning situation right then,” Ciarrocca said Tuesday in a conference call. “We had some time together to get to know each other a little bit and to feel comfortable enough with each other to say what’s on our minds.
“Coach [Franklin] has a culture here where people are going to speak up. He wants everybody’s opinion, so once you come in and become part of this family, you’re immediately comfortable with giving your opinion and speaking your mind. That’s what he wants, so that he can have all the information to make the best decisions moving forward for the program.”
Ciarrocca has Pennsylvania roots. He is from Lewisberry, Pa., near Harrisburg and played at Juniata College before graduating from Temple. He began his coaching career as a graduate assistant for the Owls and also was on Al Bagnoli’s staff at Penn in 2000 and 2001.
He found himself on Franklin’s radar after Minnesota’s 31-26 win over Penn State on Nov. 9, the Nittany Lions’ initial loss of the season. Golden Gophers quarterback Tanner Johnson completed 18 of 20 passes for 339 yards and the team’s two top receivers combined for 14 catches and 307 yards.
After former offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne left to become Old Dominion’s head coach in December, Ciarrocca’s hiring was announced on Dec. 26, two days before the Lions’ Cotton Bowl win over Memphis.
While he admits that challenges exist without spring football in getting players familiar with the offense, he is pleased to see that they "have shown their ability to respond to the situation.
“We’ve been presented with a situation and now we have to attack what we have to work with,” he said. “We’re all learning on the run with this. This is a whole new endeavor for all of us in the coaching profession. We’re doing a great job of sharing ideas and thoughts, what’s worked really well and what has not worked quite as well, what we need to adapt.
“The players have done an unbelievable job of staying engrossed in it. They know this is the situation. We’re not going to be able to install something and go out and walk through it. We have to study it a little bit harder right now maybe than we would have had to in the past because we can’t physically go out and do it. The credit really goes to the players and how hard they’ve worked at it so far.”
Not being able to work with the quarterbacks face to face is another challenge. He meets with the team’s four quarterbacks often, using up the eight hours of contact a week allowed by the NCAA. He is familiar with starter Sean Clifford’s style of play but has not seen any of the other three quarterbacks throw in person.
Clifford threw for 2,654 yards and 23 touchdowns last season and rushed for five more. Ciarrocca said for Clifford or any other quarterback to become elite, they must learn from their experiences.
“You can’t help but improve if you can do that,” he said. “But that’s easier said than done. The one thing that Sean has is, he wants to be great and he’s eager to learn new things, new approaches, new ways to maybe see a situation, so he’s very open to learning. I’m just excited to see him apply what he’s learned and his experiences, and let’s go from there.”
Penn State offenses of recent years have featured a good amount of rushing by quarterbacks. Clifford averaged almost 10 carries per game last season but left the contest at Ohio State with a leg injury in the third quarter and sat out the following week against Rutgers.
Ciarrocca, however, calls running the football “part of the game.”