Blending Penn State’s offense and Minnesota’s without actual football practice seems like an overwhelming job.
It's the challenge Kirk Ciarrocca, Penn State's new — and Minnesota's former — offensive coordinator, faces during a pandemic, with the help of his assistants and video conferencing technology.
Tyler Bowen, Penn State's tight ends coach and a relentless optimist, sees it as an opportunity.
“Everything is on demand for these guys, whether it's a podcast or Netflix,” Bowen said in a video teleconference with media Wednesday.
“I'm thinking a lot about how I can relay information to guys in a digital world, and make my coaching on demand,” he continued.
“In my (position group), I'm trying to make them approach it as an opportunity. I think it's made me a better coach.”
Bowen was the interim OC from when Ricky Rahne announced he was moving on to become head coach at Old Dominion through the Cotton Bowl. That 53-39 Penn State victory over Memphis was Bowen's first game as a play-caller at any level.
Head coach James Franklin announced two days before that game that he had hired Ciarrocca away from Minnesota, where he had lit a fire under a Golden Gophers' offense that helped beat the Nittany Lions 31-26 last season, en route to an 11-2 season and No. 10 final national ranking.
Penn State's 2020 offense returns most of its critical pieces, including quarterback Sean Clifford, elite tight end Pat Freiermuth, a squadron of blue-chip running backs, and six of last year's top seven offensive linemen.
Head coach James Franklin said last week there's “only one specific scheme … that's going to be a major part of our offense, that we haven't run in the past.”
But he also said that the 2020 playbook “does not look like Minnesota's playbook, and there's things that don't really look like Penn State's playbook. We have kind of merged it all.”
In that sense, the current situation is a little different for Penn State than most major college programs.
“When you say, ‘How much does it hurt us?’ It can't hurt us,” Bowen said. “We can't allow it to.”
Ciarrocca is also the quarterbacks coach, and was given considerable credit at Minnesota for the development of Tanner Morgan, a medium-profile recruit who emerged as one of the best QBs in the Big Ten.
Bowen said Ciarrocca's knowledge goes way beyond that.
“He can go coach an offensive lineman about his first two steps, and then go to the receivers' split, and what release he should take against inside press coverage,” Bowen said. “He's one of the few coordinators I've been around … that really knows every position in great detail.”
Still, there's no way around it: The players have seen the offense on paper. They've talked about it on Zoom. But they haven't done it.
James Franklin is a relentless, some would say obsessive, planner.
“The timing in the pass game can't be replicated,” Bowen said. “How the offensive line is pushing a zone block and how the running back jump-cuts, that kind of thing.
“There's going to be some rust. That's the biggest thing I worry about.”
Even though that part will be the same for everybody.