Should Notre Dame Consider Hiring Joe Moorhead On Offense?
When Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly announced the program had parted ways with offensive coordinator Chip Long, he said the decision to replace Long would be thorough.
“We’re going to do a thorough evaluation and search and find what I would consider the best coach that fits Notre Dame,” Kelly said back in December.
Every source that I’ve spoken with insists that quarterbacks coach Tommy Rees is a lock to be the offensive coordinator. I’ve also been told the position has garnered a great deal of outside interest.
So I am going to take Kelly at his word and pretend he was being genuine when he said the search would be thorough, and he doesn’t plan on simply going through the motions before simply promoting his 27-year old quarterbacks coach.
With that in mind, one coach who recently came on the market is Joe Moorhead, the former head coach at Mississippi State (2018-19) and offensive coordinator at Penn State (2016-17). If a thorough search is truly being done, this is a coach that Kelly absolutely should consider.
THE MOORHEAD RESUME
Moorhead is a native of Pittsburgh, and he spent all but the last two seasons of his career coaching in the northeast. Moorhead began his coaching career at Georgetown before moving onto Akron. Moorhead was a position coach his first two seasons with the Zips but he took over the offensive coordinator role in his third season (2008) when he was 34-years old. Akron averaged 19.7 points and 21.2 points per game in 2006 and 2007, but with Moorhead running the offense in 2008 the average jumped to 30.0 points per game.
Moorhead then went to Connecticut, where he inherited an offense that averaged 24.9 points per game the year before he arrived. The Huskies scored 30.0 points per game in his first season and 26.4 in year two. Connecticut has not averaged more than 24.2 points per game in a season since Moorhead's two years running the show.
It isn’t a pleasant memory for Notre Dame fans, but Moorhead was the offensive coordinator for the 2009 Connecticut team that rushed for 231 yards and beat Notre Dame 33-30 in overtime.
In 2012, Moorhead became the head coach for a Fordham team that was coming off a 1-10 season and had just one winning season in the previous eight years. The Rams went 6-5 in Moorhead’s first year and then went 32-8 over the next three seasons, earning three straight trips to the NCAA FCS playoffs.
Fordham ranked between 5th and 15th in scoring offense, 7th and 18th in total offense, 6th and 12th in yards per play and between 3rd and 20th in passing yards per game from 2013-15. The 2013 Fordham offense ranked 3rd in the nation in passing yards at 360.9 yards per game. The Rams averaged 38.4 points per game, 489.3 yards per game and 6.6 yards per play during that three-year stretch.
Penn State hired Moorhead to run its offense in 2016-17, and he oversaw a dramatic an immediate and incredible turnaround. During Moorhead's two years in Happy Valley, the Nittany Lions went 22-5, winning the 2016 Big Ten Championship.
The numbers speak for themselves:
Penn State’s offense was abysmal in the two seasons prior to Moorhead’s arrival, but he immediately got things turned around in a big way, scoring 37.6 points in 2016 and 41.6 points per game with Moorhead in 2017. In 2017, Penn State scored at least 42 points in six games.
The Nittany Lion rushing attack went from 118.0 yards per game in 2014-15 to 169.8 yards per game with Moorhead.
Penn State’s 2017 offense ranked 5th nationally in efficiency. It ranked 40th and 23rd in the two seasons that followed his departure. Notre Dame has never ranked higher than 8th (2015) in the last decade.
Moorhead coached quarterbacks at Penn State, and Nittany Lion signal caller Trace McSorley completed 62.4-percent of his passes, averaged 266.1 passing yards per game, had a 57-18 touchdown to interception ratio and had a passer efficiency of 155.23 in two seasons under Moorhead.
During his senior season, without Moorhead, McSorley competed just 53.2-percent of his passes, passed for 194.6 yards per game, had an 18-7 touchdown to interception ratio and had a passer rating of just 124.63.
I compared Moorhead’s two seasons to Notre Dame’s four best offensive seasons (2015, 2017, 2018, 2019) for context. I took out the 2017 passing numbers because the Irish ran a different kind of offense that season, which would have skewed the Notre Dame numbers.
What you see is that in his two seasons at Penn State, the Nittany Lions had one of the nation’s top offenses, and they had a far greater level of success with Moorhead than the years before or after his departure.
Penn State was also effective in the biggest games, which you can see here:
Moorhead was hired as the head coach at Mississippi State following the 2017 season. It was a strange fit for Moorhead, who spent his entire career coaching in the northeast. The Bulldogs went 15-11 in the two seasons prior to Moorhead’s arrival and he went 14-12 in two seasons before being fired.
It was a marriage that seemed doomed from the start, and Moorhead was fired after just two seasons.
There are legitimate reasons why Kelly should take a very strong look at Moorhead, and why Kelly should actually pursue Moorhead.
1. Regional Ties — Moorhead played at Central Catholic in Pittsburgh and from 2005 to 2017 he was coaching at a program in either Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York and Connecticut. He has recruited the entire northeast for years, which gives him a background and connections in areas that are vitally important to Notre Dame’s recruiting efforts.
2. Proven Track Record — Going back to his days at Akron, when Moorhead was just 34-years old, Moorhead has shown the ability to quickly develop explosive and productive offenses. This is true even when he inherits offenses with no recent track record of success.
This was especially true at Penn State, where he inherited an offense that ranked 70th and 108th in efficiency in the two years prior to his arrival but ranked 30th and 5th in his two seasons in charge.
Although the record at Mississippi State the last two years was not as good as the two prior years under Dan Mullen, the Bulldog offense ranked 33rd and 32nd in efficiency (FEI), which was better than the two previous seasons when Mississippi State ranked 40th and 39th in offense.
3. Easy Schematic Transition — Moorhead’s system has some different nuances than what Notre Dame has run in recent seasons, but there are a lot of schematic and formational similarities. That means the transition for the players into Moorhead’s system would be seamless, and Moorhead would inherit a Notre Dame roster perfectly suited for his offense. There are a number of players on the offense that Moorhead tried to recruit to Penn State, so he knows some of the personnel quite well.
During his two seasons at Penn State, the Nittany Lion tight ends averaged 62 catches, 650 yards and eight touchdowns per season. That fits quite well with the Notre Dame personnel, and Moorhead shows a willingness to use tight ends in a variety of ways. He also got the ball to his running backs a lot, which means he and current running backs coach Lance Taylor would get along quite well.
Moorhead’s offense isn’t built around force feeding the ball to one or two players, which is a good thing. In both of Moorhead’s season at Penn State the Nittany Lions had five players with at least 400 receiving yards. In Brian Kelly’s ten seasons at Notre Dame the Irish have never had more than four players achieve that in one season, and the offense only got to four once (2014).
The offense does a very good of getting players the ball in space, creating isolations against the weaker players in the defense and using scheme, formations and personnel to get the defense off balance. His system combines efficiency and explosiveness quite well. Penn State ranked 9th and 14th in explosive drives in two seasons with Moorhead, and Mississippi State ranked 23rd and 32nd in explosive drives, which is similar to what Notre Dame ranked despite the Irish have significantly better talent.
The success at Penn State is even more impressive when one considers how subpar the offensive line talent was during his time there. A Moorhead run offense with the kind of line talent Notre Dame possesses would be incredibly intriguing.
4. Tremendous Opportunity For Tommy Rees — I think Tommy Rees has a chance to be a great coordinator … some day. The fact is no matter how smart Rees is from a scheme standpoint, there is so much more that goes into being a successful coordinator than just knowing offense and calling plays, and that only comes through experience as a coach. Rees just hasn’t been in the business long enough to do that, and while he grew up around football, that isn’t an experience that is going to prepare him to run an offense at 27-years old.
Rees also has spent all but two seasons of the last decade within the Kelly system. That’s not a bad thing in any way, but it’s limiting from an experience standpoint. Rees getting a chance to work under a veteran like Moorhead, who will bring experiences, schemes and philosophies that are different for Rees would be a great thing. Moorhead is also someone who might be looking to be a head coach again, so he’s not a guy that would likely be at Notre Dame for the next six or seven years, which means Rees is still on track to being the coordinator, but at a later time when he’s more prepared.
Deep down Kelly knows Rees isn’t ready, which is why he and his staff are floating the idea of bringing in a “mentor” like Mike Denbrock to outsiders. If Rees was ready why would he need someone to mentor him? Notre Dame is at a place where it should be competing for a championship, and you don’t put an offensive coordinator that needs to be mentored in charge of an offense like this.
Moorhead is also a quarterbacks coach, and hiring him should also be paired with moving Rees to another position. Rees gaining experience coaching tight ends or wide receivers or running backs (perhaps moving Taylor to receivers) would be great for him.
From my own coaching experience, as a college quarterback I felt I had advanced knowledge of schemes, play-calling and had a feel for what all players in the offense need to do. My first job was coaching quarterbacks, but I coached running backs and wide receivers after that, and it was such a blessing because it gave me a completely different feel and appreciation for how to build an offense around those positions. I looked at putting game plans together so much differently after having coached positions other than quarterback, and it made me a better coach. Rees getting a chance to coach another position would be HUGE for him, and would better prepare him to quickly become an elite coordinator when he’s ready in a few years.
My anti-Rees sentiment in regards to hiring him as offensive coordinator right now is simply about timing. He’s just not ready, and putting him in this position before he is ready will be bad for him. If I’m right and he’s not ready, it will end with Kelly having to either demote him or fire him, and that benefits no one. Hiring Moorhead and allowing Rees to get a bit more seasoning would not only benefit Notre Dame in the short term, it would be a great thing for Rees in the short and long term.
Issues At Mississippi State — Starkville, Miss. is a dramatically different place than anywhere that Moorhead coached in the past, and the type of program he inherited is nothing like the programs he coached in the past. There were some issues with academics and off-the-field issues in the last two years that some point to as being reasons for his dismissal. That will likely come up as a red flag during any human resource work, but Moorhead’s long track record of not having issues like that should overshadow all of that.
Kelly absolutely needs to get on the phone with Moorhead and bring him in for an interview. Perhaps this isn’t a fit, but Moorhead’s track record, his experience and his system all fit perfectly at Notre Dame. If Kelly is serious about actually doing a real and thorough search, I have a hard time seeing how a guy from Pittsburgh who recently led a Big Ten offense that was one of the nation’s best and a guy who has a long track record recruiting in pro-Notre Dame areas isn’t a serious candidate for this position.
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