It’s been more than two months since Joe Moorhead arrived at Penn State, and his office is still mostly bare.
One framed photo of his family sits directly adjacent his computer. Around it sit small piles of categorized papers and folders, all in 90-degree angles and perfectly parallel to the edges of Moorhead’s desk, where he sits with his fingers interlaced.
There is no memorabilia on the walls or bookshelves, and the office’s only decoration is the view outside his double-wide window of the glossy green Lasch practice fields.
“Oh it’s gonna stay like this,” he laughed and leaned forward to re-align the frame with the edge of his desk.
He is admittedly meticulous. So much so, in fact, that when his hands aren’t folded together while he speaks, he picks miniscule specks of dust off his sleeves.
I’d say I’m an odd juxtaposition. I pride myself on my organizational skills, my attention to detail, all of those things. I think they’re prerequisites to being successful in anything in life. Offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead
“I’d say I’m an odd juxtaposition,” he said, a little sheepish after catching himself re-adjusting his keyboard to directly center his monitor a second time. “I pride myself on my organizational skills, my attention to detail, all of those things. I think they’re prerequisites to being successful in anything in life.”
It’s a personality trait that’s been crucial throughout his ascension from a Fordham quarterback to the head coach of the program, where he overhauled the Rams’ offense and turned it into one of the most productive schemes in college football from 2012-14 to match a 38-13 record.
His particular method, a simple spread with a wide range of sub-variants that will be adjusted based on the personnel he’ll evaluate in the spring, has never really been seen at Penn State — a program often known for its bulky traditionalist offense and stellar defense over the years.
In fact, the inherited set of assistant coaches with whom Moorhead will be working haven’t seen it either, so until spring practice begins in March, the offensive coordinator is holding “installation” meetings during which he teaches a section of his scheme at a time.
He motions to a sheet of paper directly to his right, on which he has created a set of charts, bundled “concepts” — his overarching categories, under which plays and variations of those plays fall depending on offensive talent and defensive checks — and color-coded them, it appears, according to what he’ll be discussing next with coaches.
“We got through general philosophy, personnel, tempo, motions, defensive identification, we’re working through the run game right now, we should finish that up and move into pass protection and pass game,” he said. “Essentially, we’re going to follow the same process that (I’ve) done at other places.”
Matt Limegrover, Penn State’s new offensive line coach, is one of those assistants learning Moorhead’s scheme. The two have known each other since they were kids — Moorhead’s father was Limegrover’s fourth-grade football coach — but only now is Limegrover grasping the depth of the new coordinator’s attention to detail.
“All he’s worrying about from the time he wakes up to the time he puts his head on the pillow is offense,” Limegrover said. “You can see that is what he’s been put on this earth to do, is be an offensive coordinator — not that he wasn’t a great head coach — but he just gets it. The way he has put this system together, and his knowledge of it, and his understanding of it gets me excited.”
Andrew Breiner, who worked under Moorhead for a decade from a graduate assistant to an offensive coordinator and who now is Fordham’s head coach, calls Moorhead’s game plan “simplistic sophistication,” an inside joke between the two about how fully the coordinator breaks down his scheme and the enormous production of which it is capable.
All he’s worrying about from the time he wakes up to the time he puts his head on the pillow is offense. You can see that is what he’s been put on this earth to do, is be an offensive coordinator — not that he wasn’t a great head coach — but he just gets it. The way he has put this system together, and his knowledge of it, and his understanding of it gets me excited. Offensive line coach Matt Limegrover, on Moorhead
After each basic concept and its related play and subsequent progressions are installed, Breiner told the CDT when Moorhead was hired at Penn State in December, the abstrusity and diversity of its variations depend on the “football IQ” and talent of the players themselves. At Fordham, Moorhead recognized those qualities in Chase Edmonds, a lightly-recruited running back from Central Dauphin East in Harrisburg, Pa., and turned him into a career 3,486-yard rusher in just two years.
On the converse, through installation meetings Limegrover has been able to see how adaptable Moorhead’s scheme is to potential positional weaknesses, too — in this case, Penn State’s offensive line — in the sense that it can lessen the impact of trouble spots while emphasizing other strengths.
For example, Moorhead favors lining up a true five-man front instead of the six-plus players Penn State often needed for its overmatched line in 2015. The offensive coordinator’s method can bring an extra blocker to deal with added pressure, but mostly spreads the width of the field to focus on talented receivers and running backs.
Last year’s version of the offense often compressed the box and collapsed a play before quarterback Christian Hackenberg could even get through part of his progressions. This year’s will provide multiple perimeter answers, should the box overload — and will feature a quarterback with the ability to be mobile, whether that be redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley or early enrollee freshman Jake Zembiec.
“As coaches, it’s not what we know, it’s what (our players) can execute,” Moorhead said. “I think that’s one of the great things about our system, it allows us to play to the strengths of our players. The more they understand the base concepts and the better they’re able to execute them, the more things we’re able to add on.
“We don’t do a million things. We do a select number of things, and we execute them very well. … It allows the kids to play with confidence and with speed, and allows their natural ability to take over.”
Moorhead will step out of the film room and begin testing those strengths himself in the 15 practices Penn State will have leading up to April 16’s Blue-White game.
On each day, he said, he will install a specific concept and correlating set of plays and see which players adapt to each and how they do so, just as he has done with coaches throughout the month of February.
Of course, he’s already got the details fully mapped out.
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