Joe Moorhead is an eventual head coach currently at the helm of one of college football’s most explosive offenses — and he joined the media to discuss that and more on a Thursday conference call.
Moorhead talked in-depth about Penn State’s scoring attack for a half-hour. His comments about where the offense is headed will stand alone as a separate story, but there were plenty more highlights.
Check out what Moorhead had to say about Saquon Barkley’s usage, Penn State’s red zone offense, Tommy Stevens and the off-field attention he’s received.
Q: Does Saquon Barkley surprise you anymore?
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A: (laughs) I don’t know that anything the kid does can surprise you anymore. I think the Iowa game was essentially a microcosm of this kid’s skill-set — and he had 350-plus all-purpose yards and did it on the ground, did it catching the ball and did a very good job in pass protection. I don’t get to see every player in the country on a weekly basis, but if there’s a better one I’d be hard-pressed to believe it. The kid’s done a fantastic job in his role, and he’s been a great teammate and a great leader and, when you have arguably the best player in the country on your team, you’ve got to look to find ways to scheme to get him the ball because he’s a game changer.
Q: As a play-caller, what is the balance for you between doing the things you know are your bread and butter and maybe calling plays that might be a weakness? Like running through the tackles, things you want to get better at as the season goes along.
A: I don’t think we’re necessarily going to try and do things in the major and the minor. We’re not going to try to do things that we’re not particularly good at. We’re really going to try to put a gameplan together that, this sounds cliche, but maximizes our strengths and minimizes our weaknesses. In those situations where we need to be a little bit better running between the tackles — I think we’re fifth or sixth in the country in yards per carry right now. Saquon essentially averages a first down every time he touches the ball. It’s really just a matter of creating an advantageous situation by numbers in the run game or matchups in the passing game and make sure we’re doing a good job of putting kids in position to be successful.
Q: What were your thoughts about Saturday night, having the ball for so long, and what emphasis has been placed this week on trying to finish off drives a little better?
A: Time of possession isn’t something we really discuss offensively because of the nature of our offense and being able to score in a short amount of time from any position on the field. Looking back on last year’s Iowa game, we won the time of possession in that game, too. The big difference in last year’s game where we had 600 yards and over 40 points and this year’s where we had 600 and 21 points was our inability to finish drives in the tight red zone. That’s an area that we’ve discussed and want to make sure when we get down in there, we have to finish off those drives with touchdowns. That’s a point of emphasis this week.
Q: Talking about a quarterback not named Trace, in your two-quarterback sets, what do you like when you’re able to get Tommy Stevens out there in those situations? And also what has impressed you about Sean Clifford?
A: Tommy’s done a very good job in the two-quarterback package. With his positional flexibility, being able to operate the offense as a true quarterback and having the skill-set to be a runner and be a receiver, it gives us a diverse package to utilize the things he does well. That’ll continue to grow throughout the season. When he’s had the opportunity to get in there as the true quarterback, he’s shown the ability to move the ball down the field and put points on the board, which is a comforting feeling to have if you would need him in a full-time capacity. And Sean is a guy that’s shown tremendous maturity as a true freshman. He was well-coached in high school by the guys out there in Cincinnati, and really has a grasp of offensive football and has put a lot of work in on his own to come into this season and have an understanding of what we’re trying to do and why. We’re very excited about Sean’s progress and potential.
Q: Is there a fullback on the roster?
A: There is not a true fullback on the roster.
Q: Let’s skip ahead to the present. Joe, DaeSean Hamilton can break the school record for receptions in a career. Can you talk about what he’s done to make himself better this year, and what impact has he had in your year-and-a-half at Penn State?
A: His work ethic in the offseason was tremendous. He did a great job working on the things he felt were necessary for improvement this season — working on his hands, working on his feet, working on his change of direction. He certainly possesses a great understanding of the offense. He has been a great leader for young guys vocally and by example. He’s a guy in the slot who does a great job for us, not just in the passing game. But as much as we put Saquon on the perimeter and ask him to block outside linebackers and safeties, he does a great job with his perimeter blocking. He’s an invaluable weapon for us, and he’ll continue to be one moving forward.
Q: What’s going through your mind when you see Juwan Johnson, DaeSean and about three Iowa defenders basically in the same area on the game-winning play?
A: And No. 27, who the ball went over his hand by about an inch? (laughs) Based on the play that we called, our spacing needed to be a little bit better there. But the play that we scored the touchdown on we had run previously in the game. It was the one where Trace got pressured and it went to (Mike) Gesicki on the right sideline (on the final drive). We had run the complement to that play, the shorter version, where we don’t run the double move. In terms of field spacing on that route, DeAndre (Thompkins) needed to be a little more shallow. Hammy needed to be a little wider and more flat. That’s why it looked like there were a bunch of guys congested. We knew that Juwan was the target on that play, based on the coverage they had earlier and Coach (Josh) Gattis made a great suggestion. The O-line did a great job protecting, Juwan ran a great route, and Trace put it where it needed to be. It was very exciting.
Q: Your colleagues have been asked this on Thursday calls previously, but is there one thing that you read and see from fans or media that makes you shake your head or laugh?
A: No, I understand the nature of play-calling and being the coordinator at this point at this level. People have high expectations, and I embrace those. That’s why I made the decision to come to Penn State. Early in the year, there was a drive where Saquon didn’t touch the ball. ... It’s, ‘You need to get Saquon the ball more.’ Then he has 30 touches in the Iowa game and it’s, ‘Oh, you’re overusing him.’ Obviously when things don’t go well in a particular area of the game, there’s something you can do to make that better. Things come up, and I understand that’s part of it. I just fall back on the thought-process that we’re doing the best things that we can to put our kids in a position to be successful with the personnel that we have in our scheme to put points on the board. Ultimately, we need to score one more than the defense gives up, continue to be an explosive offense and limit turnovers.
Q: Going off the field here, you were just profiled by Sports Illustrated as the guy behind the most dynamic offense in the nation. You did mention that you’re not in a hurry for a head coaching job. What has this experience been like for you getting all this attention? Being considered one of the highest, if not the highest, rated assistant coaches in the country, what’s the process been like? And do you think about a head coaching opportunity at some point at a major program?
A: I think it’s been interesting. Like anybody in the world, people don’t like to be criticized. They like to be praised. But when you get caught up in it and allow it to affect your approach and who you are as a person, that’s when it becomes something that could be a distraction. The thing that I hang my hat on — and our offensive staff hangs their hat on every day — is that we’re going to come in and take care of business and continue to help Penn State win games. The things that come along with that, whatever they may be after the season, we’ll address them then. But you’d rather have people say good things about you than bad things. You take it with a grain of salt.
Q: You mentioned Saquon getting all those touches on Saturday. How do you strike a balance between using him enough, not using him too much, making sure he gets a blow when he needs one, and ease up on him at practice if necessary.
A: Coach (Charles) Huff does a fantastic job, and the strength and conditioning staff does, too, in making sure Saquon is fresh and ready when we get into a game like Saturday. ... It was a byproduct of how Iowa was trying to defend us. They were playing soft on the edges, gave up perimeter runs, weren’t letting the ball get over the top, so we were dumping the ball down to Saquon. What a lot of people don’t see necessarily is there was a play-call designed to read it from top to bottom. If the deep route is open, you throw it. If it’s not, you check it down. That’s why Saquon ended getting a lot of passes. They were taking the deep offense away and Trace was making the right reads in dumping it down. You don’t want to overuse him. But when you have a guy of his skill-set, you have to make sure you get the ball in his hands enough times because he does special things when he has it.