This senior class was one of the most successful in school history. Wochit
STATE COLLEGE — The new guy in charge of Penn State’s offense dreamed of playing here, then of working here, for so long.
And yet York County’s Kirk Ciarrocca made it inside Beaver Stadium for a game just once, and that was more than 40 years ago.
He was playing youth football in Lewisberry, Pennsylvania, at the time. So it was a big deal when his coach took the team to see a Penn State home game.
“And I remember, he gave me my ticket, and I lost (it). We get to the gate and I’m trying to find my ticket. I’m thinking, ‘I can’t, I’m not gonna be able to get in. I wanted to go to Beaver Stadium … to hear that in person,” Ciarrocca said, as impersonated the Nittany Lion stadium roar.
“I still remember it. (Coach) is like, ‘Hey, little buddy, just get in real tight behind me. I squeezed in and he gave the ticket and I squeezed in right by with him.”
Ciarrocca, 54, has seven more months before his second game here. So much of that time will be massaging, if not partly re-creating, a Penn State offense that’s run hot and cold the past two years.
On Wednesday, Penn State and coach James Franklin introduced Ciarrocca and the other two new assistant coaching hires as part of a National Signing Day celebration.
Upgrading an offense
Ciarrocca will team with new offensive line coach Phil Trautwein and receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield to mesh ideas from their systems into this one.
The goal is to upgrade an offense that was second in the Big Ten last year in points but middle of the pack in total yards. An offense loaded at running back and tight end and along the line — despite the possible transfer of former 5-star runner Ricky Slade.
But also a group that has struggled at receiver the past two years.
Ciarrocca will be the point man of this planned revitalization. He earned national attention by coaching eventual Super Bowl quarterback Joe Flacco at the University of Delaware and helping to build Western Michigan and, most recently, coaching Minnesota’s offense to its best season in forever.
His team’s nearly flawless offensive performance ruined the Lions’ undefeated season last November.
But Penn State will be the biggest job test yet for the Red Land grad — as it is for Trautwein and Stubblefield.
Spring practice begins in about a month.
Until then, Franklin said his staff will continuing spending a lot of these hours merging and meshing aspects of Ciarrocca’s read-pass-option offense into Penn State’s plan under former coordinators Joe Moorhead and Ricky Rahne.
This critical hire, Franklin said, was about “finding somebody who says, ‘OK, I’m really good at what I do, but also I have enough flexibility that I’m not just going to come in and blow everything up and start all over’ when that’s not where we’re at as a program.”
That pushed Franklin’s Wednesday media session toward the problems at receiver — arguably the most glaring obstacle in their playoff chase. Last year, no one beyond departing KJ Hamler averaged more than two catches per game.
To complicate matters, Stubblefield will be the Lions’ fourth receivers’ coach in four years. And there’s this: Penn State will be his 11th coaching stop since 2007. He most recently led the Miami Hurricanes’ receivers.
“We had a lot of conversations in hiring him about the stability aspect of it,” Franklin said. “We need stability. The interesting thing is he needs it, too.”
While Ciarrocca never fulfilled his college playing dreams (He was injured early on at Division III Juniata College, ending his career), Stubblefield and Trautwein became stars. Stubblefield was the former NCAA all-time leader in receptions at Purdue and Trautwein won two national titles at Florida as an offensive tackle.
Both coaches said that will help their transition now. They’ve lived what their newest students ultimately aspire to.
Even more, Stubblefield is “a guy who didn’t do it, no disrespect to him, based on raw athleticism,” Franklin said. “He did it on techniques and fundamentals and mentality and understanding and things like that. If you go back and check his testing numbers from his pro day and combine, we’re not recruiting Taylor Stubblefield here to Penn State right now.”
Stubblefield said he’s known Franklin in coaching circles for a dozen years and spent a couple of days at Penn State on a “professional development” trip when he was at Air Force.
As a coach, “you do have an instant impact because you played the position,” Stubblefield said. “Being able to come into this (receivers) room, in a conference you played in, that they know you played in …
“It at least gives you some credibility because the things you start to teach they go, ‘I get it.’
“These guys know they need to develop and they are thirsty to develop.”
Growing up a Penn State fan
So much of Penn State’s continued push to the playoffs will revolve around the transition of Ciarrocca and his new assistants. Moorhead’s arrival, for example, directly preceded the Lions’ surprising runs in 2016 and 2017.
“Ultimately, it’s about what do your players do best?” Ciarrocca said. “Accentuate their strengths, limit their weaknesses. That’s something I’ve always been able to do, no matter where I’ve coached at.”
Now, it just happens to be the school he always looked to. The one he had hoped to play for one day.
Finally, the countdown is on for his first Beaver Stadium game in four decades.
“It’s really kind of a dream come true.”