In 240 days when Penn State football takes the field in Madison to face the Wisconsin Badgers, new Nittany Lion offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich will call his first play in the role - his fourth in as many years - and as the fourth offensive coordinator in five years under head coach James Franklin.
Much has been made of the Friday morning news that Penn State was moving on from now former coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, or - perhaps more accurately - moving in to sweep up Yurcich from a Texas program undergoing a coaching staff change. Yurcich brings with him a long history of explosive offenses and outstanding quarterback play on the heels of Penn State’s 4-5 season that began at 0-5.
Coordinators do not throw passes for their players, nor do they block, catch or run with the ball. What they do however is attempt to answer the call of the biggest coach-speak cliche you can hear: Putting players in a position to succeed.
So it’s really what happens in the next 239 days that will go far towards determining what will happen in the weeks leading up to and following that trip to Wisconsin. Even Penn State’s high watermark offensively under former OC Joe Moorhead did not avoid the initial bumps in the road, but it looked far more competent far quicker than Ciarrocca’s offense ever did.
Ultimately this may have been his undoing, the Nittany Lions lost players, had to prepare through a pandemic and had plenty of reasons that being a subpar football team was - at its best - a sign of the times. All the same Ciarrocca did not appear to be a wartime coordinator, and the Nittany Lions’ best strides throughout the year did not appear to be the product of much more than being good at a few things, and being not great at anything.
Whatever confluence of events led to Friday’s changes, the obstacle ahead - installation of a new offense - is the biggest hurdle between 2020’s results and 2021’s hopes.
Enter Yurcich himself, speaking at a coaching clinic eight months ago while still at Texas on the challenges of teaching quarterbacks, installing an offense and helping players grasp the big picture. Three of the keys? Questions, terms and concepts.
Ask more questions and present less information.
“That is so good man,” Yurcich said. “And I know when we're installing, that's hard to do because you’ve got to make sure that you're giving them the information. You’ve got to make sure it's taught. You got to make sure that they're taking their notes.”
“But when it's all in, right - have them teach it to you. Ask them questions, why? Where are your eyes? Tell me about your feet. What are you seeing here? Why did you make this throw? I asked so many questions when we're in a normal meeting when everything's installed. And we're game planning, and we're reviewing Tuesday's practice, it’s constant questions. What were you thinking is like the number one thing I'll ask the quarterback.”
“Have a terminology page,” Yurcich said. “The more buzzwords you can have, that you'll use consistently and the quarterbacks can know, I think the better. [...] So our buzzword dictionary, you'll want to alphabetize it so that you can insert things and look up things. And it's great for coaches to share with coaches, like I want my online coach to give me a buzzword dictionary. So when I'm in the unit meeting in the platoon, meeting with the offense, I can say the correct thing. I've been in three different offenses in the last three years. So there's gonna be some cobwebs, but if I can study the buzzword dictionary it helps coaches coach, and it helps players learn. It's all about communication. So types of throws, for example, our One Throw is a bullet throw. So when I say Hey, man, that’s a One Throw he knows what throw that is. So first meeting we have, we'll go over definitions.”
“Players learn best by concepts, and reps’ Yurcich said. “The more we can conceptually build our offense, and teach from that, and give rhyme and reason to our system so it's easily comprehensible. [...] I'd rather call it something where guys can conceptually understand it and learn it to where when you say the word and ‘Ah, it makes sense.’
“It’s best if you make your own up, because most of us right now, we're in a time where we don't want to reinvent the wheel, we have to adapt, we have to incorporate and we're trying to teach and go through these meetings without necessarily having these kids in person. So just be creative in how you come up with your concepts and then obviously repetition right.”
[A player might say] Why do we call it this? [and a coach says] Well, that's just what we mean. I don't think that's a good reason. I don't think that's good teaching. Because what you're doing when you're teaching you're occupying brain space. But there's only so much they can handle up in their brain. And when you enter something new, something else usually gets deleted or dulled. So although yes, ‘it's one more thing’. How many times do you hear that during a meeting? Well, it's only one thing that they have to learn? Well, that one thing is probably taken away from just focusing on a basic concept that they already know is just going to be dulled now.”