Penn State’s new-look offense is simultaneously one of the biggest question marks for 2016 and one of the biggest reasons the Nittany Lions could improve upon back-to-back 7-6 seasons.
Coach James Franklin replaced offensive coordinator John Donovan with Joe Moorhead, who led FCS-level Fordham to three consecutive playoff appearances and won 38 games in four seasons as head coach. For Nittany Lions fans, how Moorhead’s high-powered offense will translate in the Big Ten while breaking in a new quarterback has been a cause for both excitement and trepidation this offseason.
Mike Nebrich was Moorhead’s starting quarterback in 2013 and 2014, throwing for nearly 8,000 yards in 25 games. He tossed 65 touchdown passes, ran for 10 more scores and earned Patriot League Offensive Player of the Year honors in both seasons.
No one knows Moorhead’s offense better than he does.
“Coach Moorhead takes a very simplistic approach,” Nebrich told Land of 10. “He gives you the play. He lays out all of the options for what you can do, and basically lets you go on the field and run trial and error. That’s the best way he develops his players. There is obviously a lot of film work, going through different situations.
“I think that’s what makes it so successful, that it is very easy to pick up but very hard to defend.”
Moorhead previously worked as an offensive coordinator at Akron and Connecticut and he was Nebrich’s primary recruiter when the Northern Virginia quarterback chose the Huskies out of high school. When Randy Edsall left UConn for Maryland, Moorhead was demoted to quarterbacks coach by Paul Pasqualoni and then left after one season.
Nebrich stayed for one more season, but eventually followed Moorhead to Fordham, where they teamed up to help the Rams light up the Patriot League. Moorhead’s offense works almost exclusively out of the shotgun, and often with three wide receivers, a tight end and a running back.
It’s not the traditional no-huddle spread offense run at Oregon (first Chip Kelly, now Mark Helfrich) or Washington State (Mike Leach), but Moorhead does like to spread out defenses and vary the tempo.
“Playing for him is fast. It’s a fast-paced environment. Being the quarterback, you’re basically an extension of his mind,” said Nebrich, who is now a marketing manager for Level 5 Advertising and a color commentator/analyst for Synthesis Multimedia Productions. “Basically, every decision is made at the line of scrimmage. You get the play from the sideline, and then it is the quarterback’s job to make sure if it’s not the right play and we’re still running it, how do we make it the right play?”
Moorhead’s offense at Fordham was diverse and incredibly productive. As a team, the Rams threw for more than 4,000 yards and rushed for more than 2,000 in each of Nebrich’s two seasons. A running back reached at least 1,400 yards in all four of Moorhead’s seasons, and Nebrich had three 1,000-yard receivers both years as a starter.
Every play has a series of options. It is the quarterback’s job to identify the defense, and then everyone else’s role varies based on the reads. As Moorhead explained in this video, the five receiving targets are often interchangeable. Players learn what happens on each play at all five spots, so it’s not like memorizing one position and then having to do it all over at a different one.
Nebrich is 6-foot-1 and played at Fordham at about 205 pounds. One of the potential starting quarterbacks for Penn State, redshirt sophomore Trace McSorley, is listed at 6-foot and 201 pounds.
Both quarterbacks are from Northern Virginia. While Nebrich set a state record for all-purpose yards in one season as a senior in 2010, McSorley led his school to a state championship as a freshman.
“Since Coach Moorhead has gone to Penn State, we’ve talked a bunch and he’s talked to me about Trace,” Nebrich said. “I’ve watched some of his film. I think if he develops mentally, he has the skill set to really be successful in this offense. I don’t know how smart he is, but I’ve heard nothing but good things.”
Like Nebrich, McSorley was a dual-threat quarterback in high school operating in a spread offense. Nebrich had plenty of talented players to distribute the ball to at Fordham, and Penn State is similarly loaded at the skill positions. The biggest question is at quarterback.
McSorley did have a huge day in Penn State’s spring game, completing 23 of 27 passes and throwing four touchdowns while showcasing some of Moorhead’s new-look offense.
“The week before the spring game, I got to sit in the office with Moorhead and those guys,” said Charlie Pierce, McSorley’s high school coach. “I got to see the high-level thinking on all the stuff he’s doing, and all the reads. This offense is going to do some big things with him. Also, with his accuracy and being able to get the ball out quick, this offense is pretty much tailored for him.”
Corey Masisak is a staff writer for Land of 10. Follow him on Twitter @cmasisak22.