How Important is Kirk Ciarrocca to Penn State?

Mark Wogenrich

Kirk Ciarrocca, Penn State's new offensive coordinator, hasn't seen his players run a live snap of the offense he plans to install. Yet he ranks as an enormous pivot point in college football this season.

The exceptional site Football Scoop, which has been counting down the top 20 assistant-coach hires of the offseason, ranked Ciarrocca as No. 2 on its list.

(Interestingly, former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead checked in at No. 8 after joining the staff at Oregon).

As Football Scoop's Zach Barnett wrote in his breakdown, "You know what they say - if you can't beat 'em, hire 'em." As Minnesota's offensive coordinator last season, Ciarrocca ran an offense that outdueled Penn State in a 31-26 victory.

In fact, Barnett might have been quoting Penn State cornerbacks coach Terry Smith, who said much the same this past spring.

"If you can't beat him, we had to bring him in to join us," Smith said. "What a fantastic offensive mind. We're excited to have him here."

Ciarrocca got off to a good start, joining Penn State for its Cotton Bowl appearance against Memphis, hitting the recruiting trail and meeting with players through winter conditioning. That, of course, ended in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down campus, spring practice and Ciarrocca's first steps of installation.

Instead, the veteran offensive coach took to video calls, through which he made the best of a trying set of circumstances.

"The one thing that our players have shown right now is their ability to respond to the situation," Ciarrocca said this spring. "And that's really a tribute to coach [James] Franklin and the championship culture that he's built here at Penn State."

For Ciarrocca, a vital element of the transition has been developing a relationship with quarterback Sean Clifford. Ciarrocca worked wonders with quarterback Tanner Morgan at Minnesota, turning his accuracy and recognition into hinge points of the offense.

To live up to Football Scoop's rating, Ciarrocca will have to make similar gains with Clifford. Franklin said that began with the two forming a quick bond through the winter. In one staff meeting this spring, Ciarrocca paused to tell the staff how impressed he was with Clifford's "drive to be great."

"Clifford and Kirk’s relationship is going really good," Franklin said. "Getting Kirk here early before our bowl game was important for them to spend time together, watch [Clifford in] practices and in meetings. That helped. That gave them a leg up, very similar with what we did with coach Moorhead a few years back."

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