COLLINS: Joe Moorhead is most important Nittany Lion
PECKVILLE — They say time flies, but it seems like Joe Moorhead has been on this job longer than six months.
It feels like he’s a veteran member of Penn State’s coaching staff, and he acts like it. He talks like it. Perhaps most importantly, the players he’ll be guiding in the fall seem to treat him as such.
That the Penn State offense, which has struggled badly at times during head coach James Franklin’s tenure, will be better in 2016 is talked about almost like a certainty because of the man who walked into Fiorelli’s on Thursday night to serve as the keynote speaker in front of more than 350 Nittany Lions fans at the Greater Scranton Chapter of the Alumni Association’s annual Penn State Night.
Still, Moorhead realistically is more of an intriguing idea than a proven entity; his high-octane, no-huddle offense a path to another level that has not yet been traversed by a Penn State program a significant jump behind Ohio State, Michigan State and, now, even Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines.
Nothing is certain for the Nittany Lions, of course. Not in 2016. They’re playing in arguably the most challenging division in the nation. They’ve lost their starting quarterback, and most of the offensive linemen who contributed to historically poor protection the last two seasons are returning and perhaps in line for a second or third crack at a starting job. This is a team going nowhere fast if it can’t be better offensively.
But with all of that, it’s difficult to look at the tall, confident Moorhead and not consider him the most important Nittany Lion this season. Maybe, the most important Nittany Lion for the foreseeable future, too.
Why has it seemed like Moorhead has been around so much longer than half a year? Because Penn State fans have been waiting so long for the hope his ideas bring.
“It has been like drinking water from a fire hose,” Moorhead laughed Wednesday, when asked about the adjustments he and the team have had to make since Franklin hired him to run the offense in December. “We’ve been trying to accomplish a lot of things in a short amount of time.
“It has happened very quickly.”
Interesting choice of words.
The no-huddle offense is not new to football of course, but it takes a gutsy offensive coordinator to implement one. It requires specific personnel after all. It also presents its challenges for defenses, which are forced to practice against offenses they don’t often see on Saturdays.
Moorhead knew during his second season as a coordinator at Akron in 2007 that the Zips offense needed to be a tempo team, but it wasn’t until he got to his alma mater, Fordham, as head coach that he could completely sell the product. During the two seasons at Connecticut under Randy Edsall in which he served as offensive coordinator in 2009 and 2010, Moorhead said the head coach’s philosophy and the offensive personnel required him to run a more traditional scheme.
Franklin, though, wanted the tempo. Wanted the no-huddle. Wanted something the Big Ten East hasn’t seen. Wanted something completely different for Penn State.
Whether it works or not, he did get it.
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the Blue-White Game in April — in which Moorhead’s first-team offense ran circles around third-team defenders — came before a play at the goal line. Backup defensive tackle Robert Windsor, who coaches consider a future starter and perhaps the next star of Penn State’s front four, vomited on the field before a snap, overcome by the pace the offense was setting. Keep in mind, these are hardly fat, out-of-shape space eaters. This is just a defense not used to keeping up.
“It tires me out just looking at it, never mind playing in it,” Moorhead said of his own offense.
The ideas are what Franklin bought into, what Penn State fans are banking on. And, they’re solid philosophies Moorhead brings. Tire out defenses with tempo. Keep them from substituting. Force individual players to make decisions, and teach quarterbacks to make their own decisions based on those decisions. Something quarterback Trace McSorley said after the Blue-White Game still stands out: The offense is designed to take advantage of whatever defenders do. Essentially, he said, they can never do the right thing if the right decision is made in response.
The question, though, is whether the offense will be immediately better, or if it will improve only with time.
The Nittany Lions are loaded at receiver, and in Saquon Barkley and incoming freshman Miles Sanders, they have two of the most gifted young running backs in the nation. They have a quarterback in McSorley who isn’t physically imposing, but who also hasn’t done much wrong. But do they fit the system?
Time will tell.
“I had a working foundation of their abilities, just not necessarily in our scheme,” Moorhead said. “Certainly with us getting back to 85 scholarships, you look at the talent on the offensive side of the ball, it’s not just talent. It’s talent with depth. That’s the most exciting thing. Going through spring ball only reinforced those evaluations going into it.”
How Moorhead fits it all together is going to determine how good a football team Penn State can be in 2016 and whether this offense is going to be the one that proves to be worth the wait for Nittany Lions fans. They’ve sure had a long wait.