Red Land grad, former PSU assisant set to become Minnesota offensive coordinator
Looks like Minnesota Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck is getting the old band back together.
Fleck is planning to bring back Red Land High School grad Kirk Ciarrocca as the team's offensive coordinator, a source with knowledge of the situation confirmed to the Star Tribune on Thursday night. Ciarrocca, who was the Gophers offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach from 2017 through 2019, would replace Mike Sanford Jr., who was informed Monday he would not be returning to the team in 2022.
Ciarrocca, 56, left the Gophers after their 10-2 regular season in 2019 to become offensive coordinator at Penn State. The Pennsylvania native was let go by the Nittany Lions after a 4-5 season in 2020 and has worked as an offensive analyst for West Virginia this season. Ciarrocca nearly was hired to be West Virginia's offensive coordinator after the 2018 season but decided to stay with Minnesota.
Under Ciarrocca, the Gophers offense dramatically improved in his three years in charge. The 2017 Gophers averaged 22.1 points (108th nationally) and 308.5 total yards (123rd). That improved to 28.9 points and 379.6 total yards in 2018 and 34.1 points (tied for 20th) and 432 yards (22nd) in 2019.
Moreover, Minnesota's passing game under Ciarrocca and QB Tanner Morgan took off starting in 2018, when the Gophers averaged 170.9 yards passing per game, followed by 253.3 in 2019. Ciarrocca also served as quarterbacks coach.
Morgan, throwing to all-conference wide receivers Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman, earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in 2019 after throwing 30 touchdown passes with seven interceptions.
When Ciarrocca left the Gophers prior to the Outback Bowl, Fleck reflected on their time together.
"That was difficult to hear just because you have such a great relationship. But you know that's going to happen at some point," Fleck said in 2019. "Kirk's given me seven amazing years, and it's a relationship. It's a little bit like a little breakup."
After wide receivers coach Matt Simon coordinated the offense in the 31-24 victory over Auburn in the Outback Bowl, Fleck named Sanford as co-offensive coordinator with Simon, but Sanford had the bulk of the play-calling duties.
Under Sanford, the Gophers offense took a step back in 2020, averaging 27.2 points (71st) nationally, 391.0 total yards (69th) and 199.1 passing yards (199.1). This season, scoring dropped to 26.1 points per game (tied for 84th), total yards were 360.2 (98th) and passing yards were 166.4 (98th).
The Gophers threw 244 passes all season, the fourth fewest among the 130 FBS schools and only ahead of run-focused service academies Air Force, Navy and Army.
News broke Sunday that Morgan would return for his sixth season in 2022, with backup QBs Zack Annexstad and Jacob Clark entering the transfer portal. A day later, Sanford was out.
Ciarrocca and Fleck go back to their days as assistant coaches on Greg Schiano's staff at Rutgers in 2010. Ciarrocca was Fleck's offensive coordinator at Western Michigan from 2013-16, including the Broncos' 13-0 regular season and Cotton Bowl appearance in 2016, before joining Fleck in Minnesota.
Before he left for Penn State, Ciarrocca was in line to be paid $1 million in 2020 and 2021 with the Gophers.