When James Franklin took over Penn State, there were two ways he was a fantastic fit for a program trying to rebuild its image and roster.
The first was in bringing star defensive coordinator Bob Shoop from Vanderbilt to help the Lions update their classic 4-3 defense for the modern era. In years one and two with Shoop, who has now left for Tennessee, the PSU defense finished fourth and 14th in S&P+.
The other was his knack for recruiting, an especially important quality for a program trying to restock after NCAA penalties and other scandal fallout. His three classes have all ranked in the nation's top 25 and the Big Ten's top three, a turnaround for a school that had been landing classes in the 30s even before sanctions hit.
The only question was whether Franklin could make the most of former five-star quarterback Christian Hackenberg to build top offenses with a depleted roster. In the last two years, Penn State has finished 109th and 59th in offensive S&P+. In that wake, Franklin fired offensive coordinator John Donovan and replaced him with the head coach of FCS Fordham, Joe Moorhead.
Moorhead has spent the last four years putting Fordham at the top of the FCS rankings with a balanced, up-tempo spread attack, ranking in the top seven in yards per play in 2014 and 2015 and No. 3 last year in yards per pass. Now he's bringing his attack to a program that's rarely deviated from plodding, pro-style methods.
1. The Moorhead offense attacks with multiple varieties of a few key concepts.
In many ways, it's similar to what Alabama has been running under Lane Kiffin: West Coast passing concepts married to a simple, inside zone-based run game and no-huddle approach.
As Moorhead told Steven Godfrey about this system, "I think Coach Franklin liked the idea of no-huddle, of tempo, of getting in the best play against a defense that’s presented."
The offense is less about a diverse portfolio of plays and more about the flexibility to adjust a small collection of concepts at the line, all well-practiced and understood by the players.
Of course, college QBs don't always know which concept is going to work best. Thus, tempo becomes the OC's best friend. He can observe how the defense lines up in response to the quickly aligning offense and then signal in the play. Now you have a marriage of on-the-field adaptability with decision-making, all coming from the highly paid professional who spends all his time watching film.
You can observe how Moorhead organizes his offense here, where he explains how his assistants install a particular passing concept.
The goal is to allow players to fully understand a single concept, but be able to run it dozens of ways.
Here's how this one, scissors, works:
The quarterback has a simple read. The QB is looking at the cornerback on the front side, the one over the Z receiver.
If that cornerback is playing Cover 2, he'll be in position to defend both the corner route by the Y and the flat route by the running back (R). In that instance, the QB will look to the back side and either throw the dig to X or the out to H, based on the weakside linebacker (W). But if the corner across from Z is playing man, the QB will read the Z, then the corner and then check down to the flat route (R).
It can be a lot in a short period of time, but because the system is lean, it's a series of reads the QB makes over and over with minor variations.
The offense will include quick passing reads attached to the run game. A spread like this requires a QB who excels at quick decisions, an offensive line that can help run the ball down the throat of an honest defensive front and receivers who can do damage in space, but also a true tight end.
2. Moorhead is of the single-back offense school, arguably the original spread.
Here's how it came together for him.
"At Fordham as a player, my last two years were under a guy named Nick Quartaro, who had been the associate head coach at Kansas State under BIll Snyder. And this is going to back to Chad May was the quarterback, and they were in the Copper Bowl the year before, I believe. Coach came to us, and we ran a one-back, three-wide system. It was a little bit more under center and it was huddle, but you know there's some things from that offense I've taken.
"Being at Pitt in ‘98 and ‘99 under Walt Harris, he had a tremendous amount of success. There were some things in terms of learning the West Coast pass system from Coach Harris and taking that to my first year as a coordinator at Georgetown in ‘03, we were actually a pro-style huddle offense. We did a lot of things we did at Pitt, and then anywhere you go there's some modifications and personal touches you put on it.
"And then moving on to Akron to Coach [J.D.] Brookhart, he was the play caller. I'd say the ‘07 version of that offense, we were attempting to be up-tempo, attempting to go no-huddle, but we were a bunch of personnel groups and a bunch of formations. We were really running a pro-style out of the no-huddle. It really took hold in ‘08; we maximized the advantage of tempo, of spreading the field out. That was truly what we wanted to be on offense.
"When we got to Fordham, we sat down as a staff and looked at the pass game we had at Akron and some of the run things we did at UConn. Then we said, ‘Alright, this is what we're gonna do. We're gonna be 11 and 10 [one running back and one or zero tight ends]. This is what we're going to hang our hat on.' We changed all the verbiage and really, really said, ‘Hey, this is our identity: play fast, play physical.' We're gonna utilize a limited number of schemes in the run game executed to perfection. And the things we did in the pass game, you know, there are parts of it that go back to UConn, to Akron, to Georgetown and Pitt, they've just now because spread out to a three- to four-wide receiver set executed to perfection."
3. The best way to tie together the run and pass with a balanced attack in this system is with a TE who can both block and run routes.
"The offense here has been referred to as a spread before," Moorhead said. "I like to say up-tempo, no-huddle, because we’re a … I don’t want to say a ‘tight end-oriented’ team, but a team that utilizes the tight end. And sometimes I feel the term 'spread' has a connotation of finesse in it, and the mindset we’re utilizing is to have a physical run game, and our ability to run the ball successfully is imperative to our success."
The Nittany Lions will put this player along the line to execute combo blocks on zone runs or run routes, and they'll line him up at H-back to trap block on inside zone or gap schemes, much as Alabama has done. If they have a particularly good athlete, they'll also flex him out as a receiver.
If the roster doesn't have a good TE, there are options. One is to play a fullback and limit the route combinations. Penn State might do this situationally, but that's a better option for a team looking to attack in the passing game off play-action than one looking to flood zones with passing concepts such as scissors.
The other is to put more on the QB, either by having him throw pop passes from four-receiver sets or by having him run. Moorhead used both at Fordham, but there's a difference between running the QB as a way to use athleticism and doing so because you have no other way to ensure favorable numbers in the box.
4. So what is Moorhead working with at Penn State?
Does he have a roster that can put up video game numbers, like his teams at Fordham did? PSU won't average 14 yards per pass in the Big Ten, but Moorhead chose his spot well.
Moorhead is inheriting a wealth of skill talent, with explosive receivers Chris Godwin and DaeSean Hamilton returning, along with All-Big Ten running back Saquon Barkley and No. 1 running back recruit Miles Sanders. And true junior tight end Mike Gesicki should be ready to step in after catching 24 passes for 239 yards and a touchdown over the last two seasons. At 6'6 and 255 pounds, he has a rare combination of size and athleticism. In both 2015 and in 2016, the Lions recruited additional tight ends to offer depth and a future at this position.
You can witness Barkley terrorizing Michigan State on inside zone from a three-wide, single-TE formation, the sort that Moorhead will make the foundation of the Lions' offense:
This is the approach that allowed Alabama shred Michigan State in the Playoff. That could spell doom for the Spartans' Big Ten success as Penn State and other teams adopt it.
Because receivers like Hamilton and Godwin are too dangerous to ask the free safety to cover them in space without help from the Sam linebacker ("S"), Michigan State will have a harder time crowding eight or nine players into the box. A runner like Barkley should have room to gobble up yardage.
5. The biggest questions for Penn State?
Whether it can get one of its young QBs ready and whether its young OL can control against good lines at Michigan State, Michigan or Ohio State. The Nittany Lions might find some hope in the fact that last year's 9-3 Fordham featured first-year starters at QB and three OL positions, plus two true freshman at receiver.
"Anytime you're coming in, it's not just a matter of getting the scheme taught to the players to get them ready for spring ball," Moorhead said. "It's about working with the coaches, sitting down watching the Fordham film and going through the playbook and creating what we want, going through and saying, ‘OK, this is how it's been done, this is how it's been taught [to players] in the past. Now what are the other ideas we can utilize? What can we brainstorm to make it better?'
"The really unique thing is, at Fordham I brought a bunch of [coaches] with me. So the challenge here will be different. I'm the only one who has a basic foundation in this offense and has done it. So we'll have four assistants that will be learning it along with the players. But that brings a new perspective, and to me, that's fun."