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What went awry with Mike Sanford Jr. and what works with Kirk Ciarrocca

Gophers offensive coordinator said his approach to game-planning has remained constant

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Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca talks strategy with his players.
Bryson Rosell / St. Paul Pioneer Press
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MINNEAPOLIS — Football wonk Tanner Morgan enjoys it when he can get inside Kirk Ciarrocca’s head at the line of scrimmage.

“It’s a great feeling when he checks a play and you are already anticipating it,” the Gophers quarterback said about his offensive coordinator this week. “That always makes me kind of laugh. I think it’s kind of fun.”

Morgan and Ciarrocca seem in sync and the good times have rolled through two blowout wins over lesser foes to start the 2022 season. Ciarrocca returned after two seasons in which things never seemed to fully click with Mike Sanford Jr. leading the U offense.

Sanford now visits Minnesota as Colorado’s offensive coordinator; it’s the 2-0 Gophers versus the 0-2 Buffaloes at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium.

After Ciarrocca left for Penn State in 2020, head coach P.J. Fleck hired a friend in Sanford, thinking their off-field relationship would lead to on-field success. It never panned out, in particular with the Gophers passing game taking a big step back in 2021.

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The U had continued to use a lot of similar offensive schemes from Ciarrocca’s first tenure in 2017-19, but the disconnect with Sanford came outside Xs and Os. The communication, connectivity and a smooth work flow between Sanford, players and staff was left wanting.

Then Fleck told Sanford last November that his contract would not be renewed after two seasons as offensive coordinator. Unsurprisingly, their friendship has gone cold.

Morgan said this week he’s grateful for Sanford’s influence on his career. “I’m really appreciative of him of the investment that he poured into me and a lot of people,” Morgan said. “I have no ill will or any feeling like that toward him. If the situation comes up, I definitely would say hi to him.”

Sanford is joined at Colorado by former Gophers tight end coach Clay Patterson and ex-U cornerbacks coach Rod Chance. “They have done a lot for our program, and I have a lot of respect for all three of those men,” Fleck said Monday. “You stay in this profession long enough, you are always going to play against people that either work with you, played with you in college, were on the same staff somewhere, some way.”

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Excluding the small sample size so far in 2022, there was a stark drop-off between the U offense in Ciarrocca’s last year (2019) and Sanford’s two seasons (2020-21). In 2019, the U averaged eight more points per game (34.1 to 26.1), nearly one more yard per play (6.4 to 5.5), more than 50 more yards per game (432 to 371) and more than double the touchdown-to-interception ratio (3.9 to 1.4).

“In terms of system, schematically, it all comes down to our identity as an offense and I think a lot of that is the same,” Morgan, who has made 41 career starts, said earlier this season. “There is obviously different things and things that change over time.

“I think the biggest thing is kind of routine and how you attack game-planning for an opponent. That is the same, if not even more detailed (and) in depth. I think that is a huge part of in terms of week to week preparing for an opponent, where it feels like the routine of getting things going.”

Ciarrocca said his approach to game-planning has remained constant over years.

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“Coaching the quarterbacks, especially in this system, I try to let them know how I want to attack these particular looks,” he explained. “What they can expect from me to check to a particular look. How I think the play is going to unfold in a game versus different types of looks. Try to help them with their anticipation with things.”

That’s why it’s advantageous for Morgan to have an innate sense at the line of scrimmage of what Ciarrocca wants.

It’s sort of like taking a page out of Webster’s Dictionary, Ciarrocca said. “This is how they play Cover 4, and in the dictionary, this is how they align and what their techniques are,” he said about the structure of a defensive back seven.

The Gophers have had quarterbacks call plays during the young players’ scrimmages in “Sunday Night Football” for years. That has helped QBs realize Ciarrocca’s role is a “little harder” than they might have thought it was.

“I do think it helps them grow a little bit because they have to start to think a couple of plays ahead with stuff and how they are going to set something up they want to run,” Ciarrocca said. “If they have a shot play (downfield), do they have the right look? The shot play is no good, if you don’t have the right look.”

The wonk in Ciarrocca gets a bit of personal enjoyment in times when the QB moonlighting as OC is hit with a delay-of-game penalty.

“I want them to think like me out there,” Ciarrocca said. “They don’t have to make the same decision I would make, but I want them to think deductively like I would think.”

There have been plenty of inferences on how things have shifted with offensive play-calling year over year from the 62-10 win over Western Illinois last weekend.

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On the first drive, receiver Mike Brown-Stephens fumbled, and instead of going back to running the ball ad nauseam like fans likely would have seen last season, the Gophers mixed eight runs and five passes on the next drive.

Then on the following drive, Minnesota passed three straight times, including going back to Brown-Stephens for a 35-yard completion. The drive was capped by a 15-yard touchdown run by Trey Potts.

Fleck and Ciarrocca didn’t share any insights in interviews this week on what might have been said on the headsets after the early turnover last weekend.

But things within the Larson Football Performance Center have clearly changed/reverted back to their pre-2020 ways.

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