Stint at Shippensburg U. offers window into how Mike Yurcich will lead Penn State offense
Zach Zulli doesn't remember half of what Mike Yurcich was screaming, but he remembered it happening face-to-face with only 4.8 seconds left on the clock and a fresh 48-42 lead.
The then-redshirt junior quarterback had just thrown a game-winning touchdown to teammate Bryan Barley to clinch a berth in the conference championship game for his Shippensburg Red Raiders and sprinted in front of the Bloomsburg sideline after the play. By the time he made his way back to his own sideline, Yurcich was waiting. The then-Shippensburg offensive coordinator grabbed his star quarterback.
"I got to our sideline and Coach Yurcich literally gave me the biggest bear hug that I've ever been a part of," Zulli told the Centre Daily Times. "And he knocked me over. I just remember Coach Yurcich being on top of me yelling. He was just so lit up. He was so excited about that game, it was insane."
That moment epitomizes Yurcich's relationship with Zulli. The offensive coordinator put trust in his quarterback that led to a connection on the field and allowed his units to excel, and he will need to do much of the same in his new role with the Nittany Lions.
The faith Yurcich put into Zulli was something Shippensburg head coach Mark Maciejewski took notice of right away.
"Zach was a very good quarterback," Maciejewski said. "He had the moxie as a quarterback, he wasn't scared to throw the ball into tight windows. Coach Yurcich encouraged that type of stuff. With the offensive scheme and with Zach, we were able to do some good things."
Trust doesn't happen overnight: That level of trust doesn't occur overnight. Zulli — who played all over the field as a freshman in the Wing-T prior to Yurcich's arrival, including special teams — was the team's starting quarterback in Yurcich's first game leading the offense, until he wasn't. The quarterback was benched after throwing two interceptions and hadn't been named the starter for the team's Week 2 game. He was ready to transfer and ready to get away from the situation as he watched his backup take the field.
Then after backup Steven Adams struggled, Yurcich was ready to put his trust in his quarterback.
"I remember Coach Yurcich going up to Coach Mac and saying, 'I need to put Zulli in and keep him in,'" Zulli said. "From there on, I didn't miss a single snap the rest of my career."
Yurcich-Clifford relationship will be key: That type of relationship will be important for Yurcich and his quarterbacks with the Nittany Lions, especially if Sean Clifford is the team's starting quarterback in 2021. Clifford, a redshirt senior this coming season, will be on his fourth offensive coordinator in five season with Penn State and his third completely different scheme in the past three seasons.
It's imperative that Yurcich and Clifford — and every quarterback who starts at Penn State while Yurcich is there — build a strong relationship to have the offense running at its highest level.
The Zulli example: Zulli is the perfect example of how a good relationship is beneficial, but an excellent relationship and ownership of the offense can take a team to new heights.
When he was a redshirt sophomore in 2011, he played well after his initial benching. He finished the season with 2,741 yards and 34 passing touchdowns on 226-of-385 passing with 11 interceptions. His performance — along with the rest of the offense's under Yurcich — was good enough to lead the team to a 7-4 record and a four-game winning streak to close the season.
Then, something clicked for Zulli. He erupted in 2012 as a redshirt junior, leading the Red Raiders to an 11-2 record and the second round of the NCAA Division II Football Championships. He threw for 4,747 yards and 54 touchdowns on 342-of-544 passing with 10 interceptions on his way to winning the 2012 Harlon Hill Trophy — Divisions II's version of the Heisman Trophy.
So, what allowed him to make that leap and clicked from Year 1 to Year 2 with Yurcich?
According to Zulli, it was his comfort level with Yurcich and his offense.
"It was more of taking ownership of the offense," Zulli said. "I think that just learning the offense and getting into a groove a little bit helped me become a better quarterback in that second year. ... I think just growing in the offense and learning more and more helped most. Eventually the game slowed down so much I was having five touchdown passes per game."
Taking ownership of the offense: That's the type of ownership Clifford and the other Penn State quarterbacks will have to take of Yurcich's offense. The offensive coordinator has already proven his worth. He's found success in Division II and he's found it in the Big 12 at Oklahoma State.
Now it will be up to Penn State's quarterbacks to help Yurcich prove he can find it in the Big Ten.