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Reasons for Optimism (and Pessimism) of Kirk Ciarrocca returning to Rutgers Football

Former Offensive Coordinator returns in the same role in 2023 to the banks.

New Mexico State v Minnesota
Ciarrocca is back.
Photo by David Berding/Getty Images

If you follow Rutgers football and haven’t been recovering from an extended holiday away from all technology and print media, let me be the one to inform you that Kirk Ciarrocca has returned to the banks as the Offensive Coordinator for Rutgers Football, a post he held more than a decade ago. We ran a similar piece even before Greg Schiano’s return that was well received, so why not try to frame the new OC hire in a similar way? Even though many of the points below were mentioned both by OTB editor Greg Patuto in two pieces (here and here) and the media at large, we try to put a little more substance behind the talking points with some optimism and pessimism.

Optimism: Philadelphia Guy who worked under Schiano

Kirk Ciarrocca has made many stops in his lengthy career, including one as a Rutgers Football coach from 2008-2010, with the bulk of the others at Northeast programs including Penn State, Penn, Princeton, Delaware, West Virginia, Temple (his alma mater). Even though he had success under P.J. Fleck at Western Michigan and Minnesota, his real “home” appears to be within the bounds of the State of Rutgers.

Kirk has worked under Schiano, including having been let go after the disastrous 2010 season. Schiano is quite demanding as a coach from what we understand, (as is Fleck), so to decide to come back to Rutgers (after previously returning to Minnesota) with that knowledge means Ciarrocca is well aware of the type of pressure both internally and externally he will be under. One of the potential pit falls Schiano was trying to avoid as it pertained to the search had to be the risk that someone unfamiliar with him and/or the area and/or the conference could crumble under the pressure; Ciarrocca surely won’t.

Even though he is a local guy, it’s hard to get excited about ...

Pessimism: Recruiting

247sports incorrectly links Ciarrocca to be the sole, primary recruiter on five commits in their database, but the fact is that he was never known as a big time recruiter. As a program that has closed the gap, but remains talent deficient especially on his side of the ball, Rutgers fans were hoping for more in this area with the hire. In general the coordinators usually don’t recruit as much as often younger position coaches (Ciarrocca is 57 years of age) but Rutgers needs all the help they can get. Even though this high school recruiting cycle is almost over, there should be little expectation around the subsequent cycles and continuous transfer portal activity being boosted by this hire in a major way. There was also hope that the OC hire might have a higher end quarterback he would bring with him, but we haven’t seen any reason to believe Rutgers will land any of his incoming recruits or anyone with significant experience from Minnesota, Penn State, or even West Virginia.

That said, even without “his guys” ...

Optimism: Maximizing quarterback

Ciarrocca has been able to get the best out of certain players even that he didn’t recruit or have under his tutelage during their entire careers. He took two-star quarterback Zach Terrell recruited by the previous coaching staff, who didn’t play as a true freshman to a guy who threw for over 3400 yards in each of his final three years at Western Michigan. Before that, Kirk also took transfer Joe Flacco who couldn’t get on the field ahead of Tyler Palko at Pitt and turned him into a first round NFL draft pick at Delaware.

The most obvious example is surely Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan. Morgan was originally a Western Michigan commit, lightly recruited out of Kentucky, who followed Fleck and Ciarrocca to Minnesota after possessing just two (potentially non-committable) Power Five offers. In 2019, Morgan led Minnesota to their best record since 1960, then struggled for two seasons until Ciarrocca returned in 2022 when he put up his second best season and carried the team to a 7-2 record in games he played in. There’s no question Tanner Morgan was by far a better quarterback with Kirk as his OC than anybody else.

And probably the most controversial point that I’ll hear about in the comments is that one could even make an argument that Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford played the best and most efficient football of his career in Happy Valley during the second half of the 2020 season. That’s a little bit of a stretch (more on that later), but the concern is that Clifford got banged up early in that season because ...

Pessimism: Dual threat offense

Clifford is not a scrambler, but he is a savvy runner and in that incredible game against Indiana in the 2020 season opener, Sean ran 17 times for 119 yards. He was credited with 18 and 17 carries the next two weeks respectively also, but not only did that not translate into wins, it got him banged up. Tanner Morgan only played in the aforementioned nine games this year because of injury himself, so there is a huge question mark as to whether Ciarrocca can oversee the offense where the quarterback can be a dual-threat without getting hurt. Of course it may be a fool’s errand to even try to run a dual threat offense without the quarterback getting hurt, just look at the NFL this year, but Schiano did mention it as something he wanted in his search.

Looking back at his tenure at Rutgers, fans do not want to remember the “Wild Knight” that had Mohammed Sanu and Jeremy Deering toting the rock under Ciarrocca, but this 2023 team may be forced to return to the Langan package or ball carrying by Rashad Rochelle out of necessity.

The real question is can Ciarrocca tailor the offense to his personnel?

Optimism: Recent results

Perhaps you don’t need a dual-threat quarterback to have success though. As mentioned earlier, Ciarrocca has moved around a lot and was forced to utilize the players he had available. Minnesota had identical records in 2021 and 2022, but they were nearly 30 yards of offense better per game in 2022 despite running the ball so often. The 2019 season was arguable the best they ever had. Their worst year was the first for the Fleck/Ciarrocca staff in 2017 and even that Gopher squad ran the ball for 2,189 yards, what Rutgers fan wouldn’t sign up for that right now? Going back a little farther to the Western Michigan days, the Broncos mostly under Terrell had an explosive offense, upping their points per game from 17 to 33.8, 36.0, and then 41.6 in 2016. These along with a few other examples at RU show how he can take freshmen (redshirt or even true) and get them to play competent quarterback which we haven’t seen at Rutgers ... since he left?

The sticking point for a lot of people is what to make of the 2020 season at Penn State. This was a shining moment for former Rutgers Offensive Coordinator Sean Gleeson so we know to take what happened during the bizarre, pandemic shortened season with a grain of salt. Penn State lost an all-time classic in the aforementioned game against Indiana (who turned out to be good) in their season opener, then struggled to an 0-5 start, without their starting running back who was lost to a season ending injury. On the flip side, Penn State got it together and closed the season with four straight wins including over Michigan and Michigan State, plus embarassing Rutgers, and concluding the 2020 campaign with a win over Illinois. That game looks a lot better in retrospect after how PSU lost to the Illini in 2021 when the Nittany Lions simply could not score.

Only time will tell about whether one season in the Big Ten East was a better barometer than other stops for Ciarrocca, but there is some sure concern about the ...

Pessimism: Lack of ability to comeback within game

NOTE: Those avid readers of the site, especially when I was more prolific in producing content know that I take facts and numbers seriously, usually doing my own fact checking.

SO ... I haven’t had time to look at every single game, but someone quoted a stat that teams where Ciarrocca was the OC are 2-23 in their last 25 games when they were trailing by more than a touchdown. Richard Schnyderite of put it most concisely when he said on their recent podcast, “ ... basically if you are down more than a score, you lost.” Whether that number is 100% correct or not, the ones I have counted do indicate some concern there. It’s not surprising logically either when a team is built to run the ball and control the clock.

First though, how many times has Rutgers come back from a two score deficit to win during the Big Ten era? Since the epic Indiana comeback in 2015, I can remember the 2019 season opener against Umass (Umass!!), the 21-12 deficit to BC this past year, the Indiana game this past year when RU trailed 14-0 by mid first quarter, and the Purdue game in 2020 when RU trailed by 10 (twice). Oh and I forgot, trailing 21-0 in the first quarter to New Mexico in 2016, yeeesh. All that to say Rutgers isn’t exactly a comeback machine and the number of times they were down by two scores and still lost is 28 times in the past four years. So Rutgers is 4-28 since 2019 when falling behind by more than seven points, and I’ll spare you the details going back farther than that.

But his teams have won plenty of games so the flip side is ...

Optimism: Preparation

Yes it’s true the record is pretty bad for Ciarrocca (and Rutgers themselves) when trailing by more than a touchdown. That said I already mentioned the overall winning percentages being pretty good for Ciarrocca coached teams, so they are preparing well and starting games off strong to be able to end up on the right side of the scoreboard when the final whistle sounds. Schiano himself is an over-preparer himself so it comes as no surprise he wants someone else who has a track record of starting games off well.

The bigger picture though is not just in game, but the season as a whole. It’s an overused cliche that Rutgers wants to go 1-0, every week. But in 2023 more than any season I can remember since 2011, Rutgers HAS to come out of the gates strong. To ensure his seat remains cool, Schiano needs the team in the bowl hunt late in the season and potentially the most winnable conference game is in Week 1 against Northwestern. Rutgers embarrassed themselves against the Wildcats in 2021 and cannot afford a similarly lackluster effort. The last two times Ciarrocca faced the Wildcats, his offenses annihilated them.

In terms of starting seasons strong overall, you saw what Minnesota did without Ciarrocca when they embarrassed themselves with an early season 14-10 loss in 2021 to a 4-8 Bowling Green team. That’s probably when P.J. Fleck started thinking about asking Ciarrocca to come back to the Twin Cities. After Kirk’s return, 2022 Minnesota dismantled Michigan State 34-7 to start 4-0. We also know a good indicator in regards to preparation is that Ciarocca is 6-2 in Bowl games with one of the two losses being for Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl. Wouldn’t that be nice.

Unfortunately, preparation only goes as far as the ...

Pessimism: Offensive personnel

Even if Ciarrocca can find some untapped potential quickly in Gavin Wimsatt or Evan Simon (or get Ajani Sheppard ready sooner than anyone could expect) does RU have enough elsewhere on offense?

Sam Brown played well when called upon, but is no Mo Ibrahim right now even without factoring in he will be coming off a major injury. Rutgers does have versatile Aaron Young, speedy Al-Shadee Salaam, incoming freshman Jashon Benjamin, and the most likely lead back until Brown returns in Kyle Monangai. At wide receiver though, only Chris Long and Isaiah Washington have any real track record since Rutgers loses its three starters to graduation plus Josh Youngblood to the transfer portal. Could Long or Washington develop like Corey Davis did at Western Michigan? Long was a more highly sought recruit and Washington has a similar build, so maybe. Beyond them though, do we need to endure significant growing pains in route running and with inexcusable drops for everyone else?

And there’s no question Minnesota has a better offensive line than Rutgers. Can coaching/scheme offset that? Yes to some extent, but Rutgers needs a huge jump in production. Run blocking may be aided by the development of huge numbers in the lower class ranks, including the 2022 recruiting class that needs to get ready in a hurry. Pass protection has at least one solid tackle in Hollin Pierce, but Rutgers needs to figure out who can protect at left tackle where Willie Tyler played himself out of the job by late season. Are there players on the roster who could develop, especially if Reggie Sutton cannot return from injury?

Also, I liked Sean Gleeson’s simple blocking scheme in that it could be picked up quickly (like we saw in 2020), but is not built for such a run heavy offense with a talent deficiency. At Oklahoma State, there was always a threat of a pass and their linemen were not significantly less talented than the defenders across from them. Ciarrocca even when the opponent knew Minnesota wanted to run, still had some success (albeit usually with a bell cow running back toting the rock.) We saw first hand what Minnesota did to Rutgers on the ground, something even Michigan couldn’t do to the Knights in the first half.

But the wildcard in the whole exercise is ...

Optimism: Tight End productivity

The biggest knock on Rutgers offense over the past 12 years is probably not even the lack of points or quarterback play, but how inept the team has been at getting the ball to its tight ends. Part of this comes from a need to keep TE in to block when the offensive line has been porous. But even then, good teams can have their tight ends block initially, but leak out as often uncovered check down options with proper coordination and timing with the quarterback. Rutgers has failed to do this in the past dozen years other than with NFL veteran Tyler Kroft despite some physically talented athletes at the position who flashed like Travis Vokolek, Jerome Washington, and Jovani Haskins.

We saw in the Rutgers-Iowa game that the Hawkeyes had what, once catch by a wide receiver all game? And in the Minnesota game, it was a long time before their wideouts got involved (so Ciarrocca is used to lack of depth there, including losing his best WR for the year), relying on backs and tight ends to move the sticks at times. In 2022, the Gophers Tight End Brevyn Spann-Ford led the team with 42 receptions, totaling near 500 yards. I will caveat this by saying that Minnesota’s other seasons under Ciarrocca did not get much production from the Tight End position, but they did produce multiple NFL starting receivers. You have to go back to his first year at Western Michigan to see much production at the tight end position.

I am going to view this with scarlet-colored glasses because when he has had strong receivers, big, small, fast or otherwise, Ciarrocca has been able to utilize them. When he hasn’t or defenses are clamping down, he has shown an ability to leverage the tight end, including having his 3rd and 4th most productive pass catchers be TE for Penn State in 2020.

Pessimism: Can the RU defense be even better than 2022?

Other than maybe helping prepare them in practice just a little bit, this one is out of Ciarrocca’s hands. The Rutgers defense seemed to run out of gas in 2022 after trying to carry too much weight throughout the season. Can they be better in 2023 despite losing at minimum, several veteran defensive backs and a solid defensive tackle? It’s fair to hope for similar output, but there’s possibility for regression and the offense to need to do even more in 2023 to even match the 4-8 season record from a year ago.

Making sense of his first Rutgers tenure

For the most part thus far, I have omitted the stretch from 2008-2010 that Ciarrocca spent at Rutgers. He joined the program as wide receivers coach and co-OC after serving as OC on a Delaware team that reached the FCS National Title game, having won the National Title in his second season in the role back in 2003.

In the 2008 season, John McNulty was officially the Rutgers offensive coordinator, but by his own admission failed to recognize in spring ball, training camp, and early in the season that Rutgers did not have the run game they needed to win games as they did the previous two years. Someone can comment below if Rutgers becoming the hottest team in the nation down the stretch coincided with Ciarrocca getting more involved in game planning, but the fact of the matter is that McNulty did not return for 2009, while Ciarrocca did. Even though McNulty was the primary recruiter for Tom Savage, the highest ranked QB recruit in Rutgers history, it was Ciarrocca who tutored him.

In that 2009 season, Ciarrocca was the play caller and with Savage (2211 yards, 14 TD, 7 INT) playing his way to a freshman All-American accolade, Rutgers finished 3-3 in conference games he started (including two one score losses). Mohammed Sanu also earned Freshman All-American status with 346 rushing yards and 639 receiving yards on 51 receptions. Then the Knights capped off the season with a drubbing of UCF in what was basically a UCF home game at the St. Petersburg Bowl. That momentum carried over to 2010 when Rutgers started 4-2 (though they could not move the ball in losses to UNC and Tulane behind a porous offensive line).

After that 2010 season, Schiano let him go. Why? The biggest problem during his final campaign was the offensive line that gave up an NCAA leading 61 sacks. And who was the offensive line coach? Co-OC Kyle Flood! Outside of the offensive line, Tom Savage was getting banged up and then benched, but since Schiano says all personnel decisions go through him, was that even Ciarrocca’s call? And to be fair, he did get more than you could expect out of another true freshman, vertically challenged, two-star QB out of South Carolina in Chas Dodd (1637 yards, 11 TD, 7 INT) with the worst pass protection in the country, a questionable running back situation, and Sanu injured most of the year. Dodd statistically played his best football under Ciarrocca even though as he got more experience and the team got better around him, he never really showed more than he did as a true freshman ... And of course lest I forget the defense AND special teams fell apart with their emotional leader Eric LeGrand paralyzed and head coach spending every night in the hospital with him, which carried over to the entire program. So Schiano let Ciarrocca go once, but is also the same person who asked him to come back which is an indicator that even from the inside, he realizes Ciarrocca was probably wrongfully let go the first time.

My personal opinion (not necessarily that of OTB as a whole)

I’m lukewarm on the hire. The fan base is mostly mixed from what we have seen so far, but Schiano is at least partially to blame. Since he returned in 2020, the coaching staff hires virtually all seemed solid at the time they were made with a few home runs sprinkled in, spoiling us more than the results on the field.

My biggest concern as I expressed to our former editor Aaron Breitman is a two-parter about self-awareness and self-scouting. Greg Schiano talks a lot about what went well during his first tenure as Head Coach at Rutgers, but rarely does he mention how during those critical 2003-2005 seasons Rutgers had to throw the ball a lot even if it meant interceptions. In 2002 they cracked 20 points one time all year alongside just 162 passing yards per game, but in 2003 even in losses they were slinging the ball around, jumping up to 229 passing yards per game. In 2004 they finished just 4-7 but were throwing for 310 yards a game. In 2005 that dropped to 234 passing yards a game and then an incredible 164 during the epic 2006 campaign. Schiano speaks as if it was a linear climb, but I would argue 1) the running game opened up because opponents had to respect the pass, 2) the quarterbacks and receivers had experience in game so in lesser action they could still make crucial plays to supplement the run game, and 3) fans started showing up and staying longer during games because games were actually exciting. Even if Rutgers was losing you could bank on them throwing the ball a little bit with success and enjoy yourself by seeing signs that there was hope in an offense that had been dormant since 1994. I’m not saying you have to run an Air Raid, but teams rarely just steadily improve their rushing attack without passing the ball first unless they run the option. I think Ciarrocca must know this based on his experience, but let’s hope Schiano allows him to do it, especially after Gleeson was fired partially for throwing the ball more than Schiano liked.

There is justifiable debate as to whether Rutgers is still the worst head coaching job in the Power Five, and probably even more so the offensive coordinator position. The type of personality that it takes to win at a place like Rutgers is one that embraces the type of challenge, which perhaps Ciarrocca will again. I think he is a competent football coach who uses what he has, and that may or may not be enough for Rutgers to compete in the Big Ten without better personnel. He also has shown the more time he has been at a job, the better his offenses perform (even Penn State over the course of that “disastrous” 2020 season by their standards.) Fans will come to games that are rock fights (just ask Steve Pikiell) if you win some, but the margin for error is smaller without an entertaining brand of offense.

Though it hasn’t been mentioned in this article, the price tag here is hard to fathom at $1.4 million per year. The older you get the more you look back and laugh at numbers you thought were large at the time, but it’s entirely possible Rutgers could have spent half that on a young, up and coming coordinator and achieve equal or better results considering that money could be spent elsewhere. Personally I would have gone that route, but my coaching career and legacy is not on the line like Greg Schiano’s is over the next few seasons. Ideally he can find another younger assistant who might be a future OC that could grow into the role or be a fallback option that they didn’t really have on offense this past year.

Regardless of all our personal feelings past or present, we need all to channel our energy and potential resources to assist Kirk Ciarrocca. He’s done enough to deserve the benefit of the doubt. I hope we can return to watchable offense under his leadership in the next few years.