P.J. Fleck and Kirk Ciarrocca have been through a lot together. The latter was the former’s offensive coordinator in his first season as a head coach, and their offense at Western Michigan didn’t exactly light up the scoreboard. Not only did the Broncos finish the season 1-11, but the team ranked 112th nationally in rushing offense, 83rd in passing offense, and 116th in scoring offense. Three years later, the Broncos won a program record 13 games and ranked 24th in rushing offense, 49th in passing offense, and ninth in scoring offense.
Ciarrocca, of course, followed Fleck to Minnesota, where the pair orchestrated a similar turnaround in three years, reviving an offense that went from 109th in scoring offense in 2017 to 21st in scoring offense in 2019. Fond memories for Fleck.
“We’ve had a lot of times together that were really good. We’ve had a lot of really hard times together,” the Gophers’ head football coach recalls with a smile. “We forget that we’ve been together not only just during 11-2 and 13-0, but we were together in the 1-11s and the 5-7s. When we were producing on offense, when we weren’t producing on offense.”
But Fleck also understands that change is inevitable in his profession, and that will be unavoidable when he takes the field on Saturday for his first regular season game as a head coach without Ciarrocca calling the offensive plays. The Pennsylvania native opted to return home back in December, taking the same position with Penn State. To replace Ciarrocca, Fleck promoted wide receivers coach Matt Simon, who took over play-calling duties in the Gophers’ 31-24 Outback Bowl win, and hired Utah State’s Mike Sanford Jr. to serve as offensive co-coordinators.
Fleck has never been one to shy away from an opportunity to grow and that is how he views the change at offensive coordinator. “It’s about evolving. It’s about changing. It’s about making [the offense] better. It’s about not staying the same. Having the same values, but not keeping things stagnant,” Fleck explains. “And I think this has been really healthy for our offense. It’s challenged our offense. It’s challenged all of our coaches to grow.”
He calls the relationship between Simon and Sanford “critical” for their program, with Simon bringing a familiarity with the Gophers’ previous offense and Sanford contributing the ideas and information he has gathered from his own past experiences.
Fleck is mum on the specifics of how the offense will evolve under Sanford and Simon. “Our offense isn’t exactly the same as it was last year,” is all the head coach will concede. But he believes that Sanford, who also serves as quarterbacks coach, can help Tanner Morgan take his game to the next level, citing the fact that Sanford has “played quarterback at a very high level” and can also coach the fundamentals, techniques, and nuances of the position.
With Morgan back under center, along with All-Big Ten wide receiver Rashod Bateman, 1,000-yard rusher Mohamed Ibrahim, a deep tight end group, and all five starting offensive linemen from a season ago, expectations will be high for the Minnesota offense. Fleck does not seem to expect Sanford and Simon to fill the shoes of Ciarrocca, but this Saturday’s season opener against Michigan will certainly help tell us how well their shoes fit the Gophers.