Earlier this fall, we discussed the importance of hiring someone with a salty defense. But, what’s more fun than a little contradiction, am I right? One would imagine that Ole Miss is going to comb the proverbial globe in order to find a viable candidate to inevitably replace Matt Luke after the 2017 season is over and the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions releases their decision. As they should.
There have been lots of names swirling around, some head coaches and some coordinators. But, until the NCAA decides what to do with this dumpster fire of a program that Hugh Freeze left behind after being ran out of town, the path that Athletic Director Ross Bjork is going to take is still unclear.
But, despite making a case for a defensive-minded head coach last month, I feel like if Ole Miss were to look at a coordinator who has proven to be very good at their job on the other side of the football, it wouldn’t be so bad. And there is one name that folks in and around the program aren’t talking about.
So, that’s why I’m here to talk to you about Penn State’s offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead and why he should be someone on your radar for Ole Miss’ next head football coach. Let’s discuss some reasoning, shall we?
He runs one of the most exciting offenses in college football.
First things first, I am not a fan in this particular juncture of the coaching search to go the coordinator route, but folks gotta get their head coaching start somewhere, right? The one major hurdle when going this route is that coordinators usually don't have the capabilities of taking assistants with them as much as head coaches do. But, there are things that can help you look past that and you can make some exceptions.
Like an explosive offense that is helping turn around one of college football’s most storied programs and being ranked No. 2 in the country. And an explosive offense can be just as imperative as shutdown defense. Moorhead explained his unique up-tempo offense back in 2016 to SB Nation’s Kevin Trahan and how he’s been successful with it.
His offenses at Penn State have been impressive (18th in S&P+ in 2016, currently 13th in 2017) in just two short years. And he was initially operating with a quarterback who had ZERO college starts in his first season with the headset on. He’s been called “the architect of the most exciting offense in college football”, and for good reason. He was a key cog in helping the Nittany Lions win their first outright Big Ten title in 20 years and has developed a three-star Trace McSorley into an up-tempo spread wizard.
Speaking of wizards, his running back Saquon Barkley has essentially taken over college football. In Moorhead’s offense, Barkley was named the Big Ten’s Offensive Player of the Year and first-team all-conference in 2016. He ran for 1,496 yards and 18 touchdowns and chipped in 402 yards receiving and four more touchdowns. His quarterback pal, McSorley, tossed the rock for 3,614 yards and 29 touchdowns while also toting the rock for 365 yards and seven more touchdowns in his first year under center.
That’s pretty good last time I checked.
He was a head coach at Fordham and he won. A lot.
Before you discount him because he’s just a coordinator, he has been a head coach before. During his time at the Patriot League program in the Bronx, his career record was 38-13, including a sparkling 11-1 in conference, and one league title. Their only losses in 2014 were to nationally-ranked Football Championship Subdivision foes Villanova and New Hampshire and Football Bowl Subdivision member Army.
In 2014, his Rams went unscathed (6-0) in the league and finished 11-3 overall. That year, his squad averaged 40.6 points, ran it for 168.1 yards and tossed it for 326.1 yards per game. His running back, Chase Edmonds, ran for 1,838 yards and 23 touchdowns while his quarterback, Mike Nebrich, slang the ball around the yard for 3,599 yards and 30 touchdowns. Oh, yeah, he also had THREE 1,000+ yard receivers.
His defenses weren’t too shabby either.
In year two at Fordham, his defense made a huge jump. He had three players with 80 or more tackles, forced 19 fumbles, and intercepted 21 passes. They also collected 25 sacks and 72 tackles for loss and held opposing quarterbacks to a 54 percent completion percentage.
In 2012, Moorhead’s defense ranked 5th in the league in scoring defense and last in total defense. Fast forward a year and the Rams finished 2nd in scoring defense and 3rd in total defense and third-down defense. And despite being last in rush defense (gulp), his defense was 1st in pass defense, pass defense efficiency, and red zone defense.
In 2014 when Fordham took home a conference title, they were 1st in pass defense, pass defense efficiency, and red zone defense, 2nd in total defense and opponent third-down conversions, 3rd in interceptions, and 4th in rush defense.
Regardless of the level of competition, he is not just a pass-happy coach who is trying to blow up the scoreboard and just be the last person to score. He seems more than capable of putting a staff together to recruit and motivate folks to play some defense.
The guy has been in this rebuild spot before.
Upon being hired by the Fighting Denzel Washingtons, he inherited a 1–10 team. But, no biggie to Joe because in 2012 he only orchestrated the second largest turnaround in FCS history. The Rams went 6-5, but weren’t eligible for the Patriot League championship because they used scholarship players while the rest of the league's members do not. They did “finish” with a conference record of 3-3 which would have been good enough for third.
He then opened the 2013 season with 10 consecutive wins and rising as high as No. 5 in the polls. They eventually lost to nationally-ranked Towson in the second round of the FCS Playoffs.
Despite a quick exit from the playoffs, Moorhead was able to implement his offense quickly and generate wins at a place that most people probably had no idea played football.
He has worn many hats during his career.
Moorhead has been a position coach, coordinator, and an associate head coach at multiple spots. He’s been a running backs and quarterbacks coach at Georgetown. He’s been a wide receivers coach, passing game coordinator, and recruiting coordinator at Akron. And he was the offensive coordinator at UConn when they were the Big East’s BCS conference champ representative for the 2011 Fiesta Bowl against the Oklahoma Sooners.
Joe is a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania native who played his college ball at Fordham and has no legitimate ties to the Southeast. But, he is young and has been named the top rising assistant coach name by Sports Illustrated. No matter the geographical location, Moorhead is and will be one of the most sought after names in the college football coaching search world and should be someone that the Rebs give a fair shake.
SI’s Bruce Feldman called him “the architect of the most exciting offense in college football” and was quoted as saying "he’s smart, innovative, down-to-earth and well-liked by his players...the 43-year-old Pittsburgh native would warrant a look from anyone in the market for a head coach, not just programs in the northeast."
Sounds good enough to me.
Ole Miss will be looking at several head coaching candidates from now and until the end of the season to find someone to lead the Rebels in 2018. Whether it’s a former head coach who is leading an AAC school that is ranked or a coordinator from a Power 5 program that has an impressive defense or offense, it will be a tough job to repair the crippled recruiting, rebuild a middling defense, and gain the trust of a fan base that is searching for answers.
But, hey, my man Joe has been there, done that, and is possibly on the verge of another Big Ten title and a playoff berth in State College. He knows what it takes to not only rebuild an entire program from scratch, but he knows how to sustain success and build upon that success year after year.
So why the hell not give him a call, Ross?