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How Joe Moorhead turned 5 simple ideas into one of football’s scariest offenses

Joe Moorhead’s offensive system is all the proof you need that he can thrive in Starkville and take on the SEC West.

Everything changed for Joe Moorhead as soon as he obtained the most valuable commodity in coaching: final say.

Moorhead had moved from FCS position coach to power conference offensive coordinator in just six years, and he had been reasonably successful as a play-caller. But when he took the head coaching job at Fordham in 2012, it was his chance to fully institute his offensive vision.

“That first year at Fordham, we said, ‘Alright, we’ve got 51 percent of the vote, and all of the things we’ve been talking about wanting to do,’” Moorhead tells SB Nation. “‘We’re gonna sit down and put the system in place that we want to run.’”

Fordham was desperate for a jolt of energy. It was the perfect environment for getting creative. The system Moorhead and his assistants created would help usher in the run-pass option (RPO) era.

The turnaround was immediate. The Rams improved by five wins in his first year and by six more, to 12-2, in his second.

They averaged 37.6 points per game in 2013, and despite an offseason ACL injury to dual-threat quarterback Michael Nebrich, they began to adopt some run-pass option reads, improving to 39.2 points per game in 2014.

Moorhead’s system wasn’t a reinvention of the geometry of football in the way that Hal Mumme’s air raid was. This was more the synthesis of a bunch of the most versatile ideas.

The former Penn State OC was an optimistic head coaching hire on Mississippi State’s part, one predicated on finding an extremely talented coach, not an overthought attempt at finding someone with perfect SEC (read: Nick Saban) or Mississippi ties. And Moorhead’s is an optimistic offense, one that has baked in as much flexibility as possible, in both tactics and QB empowerment.

If there’s any proof that Moorhead can thrive in Starkville, it’s the tenets of his offensive system, which reflect a commitment to inclusiveness and ingenuity.

1. Use the same personnel as much as possible.

Defensive coordinators have to make their decisions based on your personnel, not your formation. Don’t give them anything to work with.

All offenses try to make defenses guess incorrectly. That’s the trick behind any option concept: isolate specific defenders, make them guess, and punish them for that choice. Moorhead tries to make defensive coordinators guess wrong, too.

In 2016, as Penn State was making its run to the Big Ten title, Moorhead’s offense ran more than 98 percent of its plays out of 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, three receivers). The numbers barely changed last year. A Moorhead offense can morph into plenty of looks, and players can substitute within their position groups, but the defense can’t glean anything from the players coming on and off the field.

“Defensive coordinators, they don’t really know what formation you’re going to line up in,” Moorhead says. “So when you’re in a certain personnel grouping, you have to make a defensive call, and it’s gotta match up against any formation they can align in.”

NCAA Football: Pittsburgh at Penn State
Joe Moorhead looks on as Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley warms up before playing Pitt in 2017.
Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

By the time the defense sees the formation, it’s too late to call a play.

“So with us never switching personnel, we can align in three different formations with the tight end attached, we can align in two different formations with the tight end detached, and then we can line up in three different empty[-backfield] formations. And we haven’t taken anybody out of the game.”

Moorhead began to realize the power of singular personnel when he served as J.D. Brookhart’s coordinator at Akron from 2006 to 2008.

“We were no-huddle, but we were multiple personnel. It was like running a pro-style out of the no-huddle. It was hit-and-miss from a production standpoint.

“I would say the 2008 season was really the first time where we said, ‘Alright, we’re gonna be 11 and 10 personnel [one back, no TEs], mix in a little bit of 12 [one back, two TEs] — limited formations, limited plays. That ‘08 year was kind of the 1.0 version.”

2. Empower the QB.

Give your players as much control as they have earned. Teach the QB to be your eyes on the field and make changes based on what he sees.

Moorhead offers a hypothetical. Let’s say you’ve called a base RPO, in which you’re going to either hand the ball off to the running back or throw to a man running a replace route (i.e., running to a spot where an attacking defender once stood). But you’ve determined the defense is in man-to-man coverage, negating much of the point of an RPO, which is designed to conflict defenders who have responsibilities in both run and pass defense.

“There are things within the play to take advantage of that,” he says, and a well-designed offense has contingencies on top of contingencies. But if you’re not comfortable with what you’re seeing, just change the play.

“One of the benefits of our system is that we don’t have to stick to that play. If it’s a look that you don’t like, just get into a play that attacks that look.”

The concept seems intuitive, but player-coach relationships aren’t always so, shall we say, collaborative. And it wasn’t until Moorhead experienced collaboration that he realized he wanted to be a coach. His last two seasons as a quarterback at Fordham, he played for former Bill Snyder assistant Nick Quartaro, who gave his QB freedom Moorhead never knew was possible.

Quartaro went 11-31-1 as Fordham’s head coach, though that was a marked improvement over what he inherited. Four of those 11 wins came when Moorhead was a senior.

“The system that he put in — Bill Snyder’s system — was a one-back, mostly 11 personnel,” Moorhead says. “Going back to that playbook — to improve upon an existing play call or change the play call completely — that was something I took a great amount of pride in.

“I think maybe that subconsciously stoked some of those coaching embers,” he notes. “In [Quartaro’s] system, you could get to the line of scrimmage, and literally if you didn’t like something, you could completely change it,” which Moorhead did quite often.

“I think that was the best thing about it, being able to play in a system that gave the quarterback an incredible amount of autonomy. And really from a preparation standpoint, you had to know what was going on. When you have that kind of freedom, you can’t just wing it.”

He laughs, “Coach and I still joke about it all the time. There was one game, and one of my buddies, a defensive guy, was standing next to him on the sideline. We’re going through a drive, and I think I had checked out of five or six straight plays. He’s like, ‘Jeez oh man, this guy’s checking out of every play that I call!’”

Until Quartaro’s influence, Moorhead had envisioned a different path for himself. He was an English major who expected to go into sports journalism, but only once it was clear his first career choice wasn’t going to work out.

“In all honesty, I wanted to play professional football. I wanted to be Dan Marino or Terry Bradshaw and chased that dream as long as I possibly could.”

It would make sense that someone whose major included a creative writing curriculum filled his playbook with more choices than plays. Take Moorhead’s go-to play-action call, for instance. It’s what he ran in 2003, his one year as Georgetown coordinator.

Joe Moorhead

This is your common power run look to the right side, and the Z receiver — the receiver lined up on the strong side of the formation with the tight end — has route options based on how he’s being covered. He has to read the same thing that the QB is reading.

“That’s what we got from [former Pitt coach] Walt [Harris],” the former Panthers graduate assistant says. “That’s one that’s stood the test of time. Going all the way back to 1999, it’s literally the same play.”

The option route can be traced back to John Elway’s high school days.

“But essentially what we’ve done now is, we can run this concept to any of the other receivers.”

It’s a Z option here, but it could be an X option (to the end split alone on the other side), or an option for the slot receiver or tight end.

“I’d say there’s a tremendous amount of carryover from Akron to here,” Moorhead says. “It’s developed and progressed throughout those stops, but the run game is what’s completely changed.”

3. Slap a read onto nearly every run, too.

Never put yourself in a position in which your QB doesn’t have options.

“I would say 85 to 90 percent of the runs we called had a second phase or a tag,” Moorhead says. The complexity varied, but “rarely do we just call a run and just hand it off without having the quarterback read somebody at the first, second, or third level.”

This is where football has begun to change. It’s easy to think of RPOs as a third category of play, alongside runs and passes. But you have to be prepared to run if you’re calling a run-pass option; the concept is only going to have so much use on, say, third-and-11.

To illustrate how the RPO is utilized, let’s look at a couple of mesh points (the point at which the hand off is to occur, or not occur).

This is the same inside run play, the first taking place on first-and-10, the second on second-and-10. But they have different tags. The first play has a bubble screen slapped onto it, the second has something different.

On the first, against Northwestern last year, McSorley appears to be reading the defensive end, who surges upfield and opens up space for Saquon Barkley to do Saquon Barkley things. Barkley races to the end zone to ice the game.

On the second play, from late in the 2017 win over Michigan, McSorley appears to read the outside linebacker, who is himself reading run and not covering the slot receiver. McSorley then throws to an open slot man for a 23-yard gain.

Both of these plays were called as runs. This is how you take your pro-style influences and fit them into an innovative, ridiculously QB-friendly system.

4. It’s about the players, not the system.

Defenses will always try to dictate the reads you make. Stay one step ahead of them.

In that Northwestern game, not much was working. The Nittany Lions were never severely threatened on the scoreboard — in the first half, they forced three turnovers and a turnover on downs, all in their own territory — but in a season in which it seemed like PSU led every game 14-0 at opening kickoff, Northwestern had the offense locked down.

Sometimes, you need playmakers. Barkley made one.

The play that turned the 2016 season around wasn’t a run-pass option of any sort, just a plain, old pass Penn State used pretty frequently.

Joe Moorhead

PSU was trailing 13-3 against Minnesota early in the third quarter. The Nittany Lions were 2-2 and coming off of a blowout loss to Michigan. No one was thinking of them as Big Ten contenders. Head coach James Franklin, who had brought Moorhead in to liven up a stagnant offense, was catching more heat by the week.

Moorhead called one of his go-tos, a pass that often went to tight end Mike Gesicki, the guy lined up opposite the three receivers on the other side.

Minnesota had Gesicki and Barkley, the dump-off option, covered up. The Gophers were well-prepared for the attack to that point. McSorley had to step up in the pocket and make a play downfield.

“The post part of that route” — the middle receiver’s route in the trips combo — “is one that may have changed our whole tenure at Penn State,“ Moorhead says. “Irv Charles caught it ... actually the ball kinda caught him ... but he split it for 80.”

Later, McSorley improvised again, scrambling for 26 yards to set up a game-tying field goal.

Penn State would win in overtime.

“That was the point in that season when everything kinda turned around,” Moorhead says. “From that point on, we made a conscious decision that we were gonna run Trace more. And that opened up a lot of things for us.”

Offenses have control when they build options into their attack, but defenses can still dictate which options get chosen. So at some point, McSorley had to make plays. And the better an offense adapts to its personnel, the more likely it is to figure out what its playmakers can do.

In 2016, only two teams had more gains of 30-plus yards than the Nittany Lions did. In 2017, Moorhead’s second year, defenses completely changed how they defended PSU. So McSorley took what he was given.

“Defenses were attempting to take away the big plays,” Moorhead says. “Trace read it, the deep ball wasn’t there, and he came down to our second or third option. Or the coverage for us to go deep wasn’t right, and we ended up going to the other side of the field.”

If you don’t have talented players touching the ball, your system is only going to be so effective. But Moorhead feels he has built the best system for whatever his personnel has to offer.

“What excites me the most is the simplicity and flexibility of our system,” he says. “We can tailor it to a running quarterback, and we can tailor it to a throwing quarterback. If we need to pass more because that’s our strength, then we’ve done that — 5,000 yards one year at Fordham, and Trace has broken all the records at Penn State. If it’s a team that’s more offensive line-centered and run game-centered, then we can lean on that. We’ve never been higher than 55 percent [run or pass], one way or the other.”

Joe Moorhead congratulating wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton after Penn State’s win over Nebraska in 2017.
TNS via Getty Images

That could be key in 2018, as Moorhead inherits one of the most proven rushing quarterbacks in the country, Nick Fitzgerald. Not including sacks, the senior-to-be rushed 155 times for 1,026 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2017. When Fitzgerald got hurt, backup Keytaon Thompson rushed for 155 non-sack yards and outplayed Lamar Jackson in a bowl win over Louisville.

Fitzgerald is really good, but he’s different than McSorley. Moorhead’s fine with that.

“The success of our offense isn’t contingent upon one phase being that much better than the other, and I think that’s where we as coaches need to be cognizant of it. It’s not what we want to work, it’s what’s gonna work based on who we have and how we can teach it.”

5. Never stop adapting.

The fifth tenet to Moorhead’s philosophy has more to do with the man than the system.

Starkville is a lot further south than anywhere Moorhead has ever coached.

He is a generous and well-spirited interview. But when you ask him about a change in culture, about getting a head coaching job in the SEC without ever having coached in the league before, he looks a little weary. You can tell he’s been asked the question quite a bit. But until there are actual games, all he can do is talk.

Recently, that meant going to Memphis, Houston, and Atlanta (where plenty of MSU grads and potential recruits live), but also to Mississippi towns like Vicksburg, Cleveland, Biloxi, Meridian, and Tupelo.

“We were on the road through all of December and into January,” he says, “and we’ve had multiple coaching staffs come through here and talk ball. I’ve had a chance to go throughout the state on this Road Dawgs Tour and meet the fans and people who support the program. I think it’s probably part Southern hospitality and part just being genuine with people, but it doesn’t make the transition very difficult.

“And I just feel strongly in my heart of hearts that the regional aspect of coaching and recruiting is incredibly overblown. If you can coach, you can coach. If you can recruit, you can recruit.”

The tour gave him time to test out a strong talking point: “I ask the crowd if they know Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher, and Urban Meyer’s home towns. Fairmont, W.V.; Clarksburg, W.V.; and Ashtabula, Ohio, which is almost in Canada. It hasn’t hurt them too much. Not to compare myself to them from a productivity standpoint, but — it might not guarantee success, but it doesn’t eliminate it either.”

Moorhead tried to align his staff to account for the holes in his résumé. He is surrounded by an almost perfect mix of former Moorhead assistants, coaches with Mississippi or SEC experience, and coaches with head coaching experience.

“It’s like Ocean’s Eleven,” Moorhead says about the way he put his staff together.

At Fordham, he inherited far less talent than what he’s found in Starkville. When former head coach Dan Mullen left to take the Florida job, he did Moorhead a favor, leaving behind both a well-stocked cupboard and room for growth.

In nine years under Mullen, the Bulldogs averaged 7.7 wins per year and won in a way that MSU had not since the late-1930s and early-1940s. They even reached No. 1 in the AP poll for the first time, midway through 2014.

“We’ve been very good,” Moorhead says, “but there’s been one winning record in the SEC for Mississippi State in the last 15 years.”

The SEC West is still the toughest division in college football. Simply getting to 4-4 in conference play, as Mullen did in each of the last three years, will never not be an accomplishment for the Bulldogs.

“There’s a quote we put in our weight room,” Moorhead says. “‘The difference between success and failure is doing something nearly right and exactly right.’ For us to compete in the SEC and win a championship in his conference, we can’t do things nearly right. For us to achieve the kind of goals that we want to, our actions have to reflect our goals. And that’s not doing things close. On a weekly basis in this conference, close’ll get you beat.”

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