Joe Moorhead, center, the offensive coordinator at Penn State University, is expected to be announced this week as the new head coach for the Mississippi State football program. He will replace Dan Mullen, who served in that capacity for nine seasons. Photo by: Matthew O’Haren-USA TODAY Sports
November 29, 2017 11:12:04 AM
The contents of this article have been modified since its original posting.
STARKVILLE -- Mississippi State waited 48 hours to find its next football coach.
In the end, it found a man Penn State football coach James Franklin called "one of the better play callers in college football."
Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead will replace Dan Mullen as MSU's next football coach. Mullen left MSU earlier this week to become the new football coach at Florida.
Moorhead won the job out of a shortlist that included Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables and Alabama-Birmingham head coach Bill Clark.
MSU has confirmed the hiring and has scheduled a press conference introducing Moorhead for 10 a.m. Thursday in the Leo Seal Jr. Football Complex.
"It's a tremendous honor to be a Mississippi State Bulldog," Moorhead said in a prepared statement released by the university. "I am thrilled to take the reins of an SEC program that has been as successful as this one has the past decade. I look forward to getting to know the young men on our team, hiring a staff and hitting the recruiting trail quickly."
Athletics Director John Cohen also released a statement lauding the hire.
"Joe is a winner, a man of integrity with a blue-collar work ethic and an ability to motivate others that our student-athletes will gravitate to," Cohen said. "His innovative offensive philosophy is a perfect fit for our program and will keep us on a path to competing for championships. I was also impressed with his detailed defensive plan. He will demand excellence on and off the field and maximize the resources we have to continue to be successful in the SEC."
Moorhead served as head coach at Fordham, a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) school in the Bronx, New York, for four years before spending two years at Penn State. Moorhead took over at Fordham in 2012 and immediately raised the Rams' scoring output from 13.2 points per game to 31.2 ppg. Those numbers grew to 37.6 and 40.6 ppg. in the next two years. The last two seasons ended in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
This season, Penn State (10-2, 7-2 Big Ten Conference) is seventh in the nation in points per game (41.6). Its two losses to Ohio State and Michigan State were by a combined three points. Last season, quarterback Trace McSorley was sixth in the nation in yards per pass attempt (9.34) as Penn State beat Wisconsin for the Big Ten Conference championship.
"A lot of it is predicated on tempo," Audrey Snyder, the Penn State beat writer for DK Pittsburgh Sports, told The Dispatch. "This is where Penn State fans originally get really confused because they went out telling people it's going to be up-tempo like Oregon, but it's not. It's up-tempo between plays, but once they get there, they really slow things down. You'll see them look over to the sides and they have a bunch of complex signs they relay in."
Moorhead also likes to use the deep ball. Last season, Moorhead's offense was third in the nation in passes of 30 yards or more (38) and passes of 40 yards or more (23).
After the 2016 season, Snyder said there was doubt the offense could rely on passes that are generally viewed as risks. She said hearing that made "a pretty chill, laid-back guy, pretty funny guy" as heated as she has ever seen him.
Snyder said Moorhead doesn't believe the deep ball is a 50-50 play. He believes practice can turn it into something efficient.
"It's a lot about ball placement and understanding coverage, pre-snap and post-snap, and that's something I think is great about what we do and unique about our spread," Moorhead said before last year's Rose Bowl.
In a system that also features an evolving rushing scheme, Moorhead's hiring was a hit with MSU's returning offensive players.
Freshman running back and Columbus native Kylin Hill tweeted, "I love you man @JohnCohenAD."
Linebacker Erroll Thompson, another freshman, tweeted, "Moor cowbell #hailstate".
That rushing attack includes prominent use of the quarterback and running back -- a philosophy that should work well at MSU with quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and running backs like Hill and former West Point High School standout Aeris Williams, who rushed for 1,019 yards this season. The ankle injury Fitzgerald suffered in the loss to Ole Miss in the Battle for the Golden Egg prevented MSU from having a 1,000-yard rusher at quarterback and running back on the same team in the Mullen era. Fitzgerald, who finished with 984 yards rushing, is expected to return for his senior season to run Moorhead's offense.
Moorhead, a native of Pittsburgh, has never coached in the Southeast. The closest he has come is a three-year stint at Georgetown before five years at Akron, a span in which he was never the head coach. Moorhead's biggest recruiting wins have taken place in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. He has no obvious recruiting ties to the state he is expected to coach in.
Questions surrounding Grantham's future
One of the biggest decisions facing any offensive-minded head coach is his defensive coordinator hire, and Moorhead will face an interesting one upon his arrival. Moorhead has worked with many respectable defensive coordinators along the way, including Michigan defensive coordinator Don Brown, but if he so chooses, he already has one in Starkville: Todd Grantham.
The Dispatch could not confirm by press time whether Grantham was staying at MSU or following Mullen to Florida, but one recruit this morning -- three-star safety Tyrese Ross from Atlanta -- tweeted he was decommitting from MSU because he had heard Grantham was leaving.
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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