CARSON, Calif. — Penn State fans can relax about Joe Moorhead, at least until the football equivalent of Sports Illustrated gives him a call.
Moorhead is one of college football’s top newcomers, having left his post as Fordham head coach and helping turn Penn State into one of the most dynamic teams in the nation in his role as offensive coordinator in this, his first season. The Nittany Lions won the Big Ten and will play Monday in the Rose Bowl, in part because of an offense that is averaging nearly 37 points per game and thrives on explosive plays.
The impressive improvement helped make Moorhead a desired candidate for head coaching openings at the FBS level. While he is willing to listen, what drew him to Penn State has kept him here despite the outside interest.
“You know, when I was at Fordham, I had a an FBS job offered to me and turned that down to stay at Fordham,” Moorhead said Thursday at StubHub Center, home of the L.A. Galaxy and temporary practice home for Penn State this week. “And the things I said to the people at Fordham is it would take a pretty special opportunity for me to leave there, and, obviously, Penn State was that opportunity.”
Pressed on the matter, Moorhead offered more insight into his thought process than many coaches would.
“I think it’s like anything in life,” Moorhead said before integrating the reporter into his analogy. “You’re doing a great job where you work and people want to come speak to you, you won a couple (journalism awards), you’re doing great with the columns, your leads are on point, all these things are great, and Sports Illustrated comes and wants to speak to you. If an opportunity presents itself, at worst I think it’s best to listen. Once again, you utilize the criteria, personal and professional.
“I’m very entrenched here, and to me, my professional success is not determined on becoming a head coach again. If it happens and it’s the right situation, fantastic. If not, that’s not going to lessen or diminish anything from my end. Like I said, it’s great to be at Penn State. It’s great to be the offensive coordinator here. If a situation arises and it’s right, I’ll listen to what people have to say and consider it on an individual basis.”
Among the reasons Moorhead listed about why Penn State is so appealing to him include the location, which is close to both his and his wife’s parents, how much his family enjoys the town, the program’s upward trajectory and working for head coach James Franklin.
There were reports that named Moorhead as a candidate for jobs at Purdue, Temple and, most recently, Connecticut, where he was the offensive coordinator before he went to Fordham. But none of those places offered the combination of positives that his current situation does.
Moorhead’s commitment to return for at least 2017 could be one of Penn State’s most important victories in the offseason. Pending a couple of more decisions about early entry to the NFL, Penn State could return 10 starters on offense next season.
The only senior is center Brian Gaia. Junior tight end Mike Gesicki has declared he’s coming back. Junior wideout Chris Godwin said he is focused on the Rose Bowl. If everyone comes back, Penn State could be one of the top offenses not just in the Big Ten, but the entire nation next season.
“I talked to coach Moorhead before I made my decision,” Gesicki said. “And, you know, he told me he’s coming back and all that kind of stuff. It was awesome to hear that and have that reassurance. That was a crucial part to my decision. Just coming back, being able to play in his offense again with a bunch of guys coming back and a bunch of crucial pieces. So it feels good, and I’m happy with it.”
What Penn State has done with Moorhead’s offense has been remarkable. The Nittany Lions returned a talented group of skilled players, led by sensational running back Saquon Barkley, Godwin and wideout DaeSean Hamilton. But the offensive-line play was miserable the past two seasons, and there was going to be a new quarterback.
All Trace McSorley did was set the program record for passing yards, total yards and passing touchdowns in a single season, and he still has the Rose Bowl against Southern Cal left to play. Barkley won Big Ten offensive player of the year honors, but teams focused so much on trying to slow him down that Penn State became one of the most explosive passing offenses in the country in the second half of the season.
“Really, we were excited for this in the spring,” Hamilton said. “Installing our offense, not really knowing exactly what it was going to be like in Big Ten play. But we knew we were going to be able to make plays against our defense, and they were one of the better defenses in the country themselves.”
McSorley leads the Big Ten in quarterback rating, and has 20 touchdowns and two interceptions during Penn State’s nine-game winning streak. The Nittany Lions are fourth in the nation in passing plays of 30-plus yards and tied for third in passes of 40-plus yards.
For the first two years of Franklin’s regime, fans complained about the in-game decision-making and offensive play-calling. Now Penn State is one of the best teams in the nation at making adjustments and pouring on points in the second halves of games.
“Coach Moorhead, he called it at Purdue,” Gesicki said. “First play of the drive, said we’re handing it to Saquon, we’re blocking it here and he’s taking it in for a touchdown. And it happened. It was an 80-yard touchdown.
“That’s kind of what I’m talking about with all the confidence that he has. He’ll get out there and just be like, ‘Alright, guys, this is a touchdown. This is a big play.’ We go out there and work it out, and it works out for us.”
Franklin’s name has also been mentioned when there were other high-profile openings, and given the team’s success this season, it might happen again as several NFL teams are now looking for a new head coach. It certainly seems plausible to think Moorhead would be on the short list of candidates to be Penn State’s next head coach should Franklin depart.
Maybe “Sports Illustrated” for Moorhead is actually Penn State. Given the success of the offense this season and the anticipation for 2017, Nittany Lions fans are certainly hoping Moorhead will be a long-term fixture on the coaching staff.
“It’s definitely nice,” McSorley said of Moorhead’s return. “Definitely having that security blanket, knowing he’ll be back next year and have another year to learn from him.
“Like I said earlier, he’s a genius. So the more I can be around him, the more I can learn from him, will only be better.”