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Minnesota Football: Is the Gophers’ next offensive coordinator already on staff?

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P.J. Fleck has intriguing internal options to consider for the vacant offensive coordinator position

Gopher Sports

With the news that the Minnesota Golden Gophers will be parting ways with offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford Jr. after two seasons, the question now becomes who head coach P.J. Fleck will look to next to lead his offense.

If Fleck opts to make an external hire, it’s anyone’s guess who will be among the pool of candidates under consideration. But he also has options internally, starting with Matt Simon.

Simon first met Fleck at Northern Illinois in 2007, when the former was a wide receiver and the latter was the Huskies’ wide receivers coach. When Fleck was hired as the head coach at Western Michigan, he brought on Simon as his wide receivers coach. Simon followed Fleck to Minnesota and was named co-offensive coordinator with Sanford ahead of the 2020 season after previous offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kirk Ciarrocca left for Penn State.

When Ciarrocca left and Simon took over as interim play-caller for the Outback Bowl, many fans assumed that that was his audition for the offensive coordinator position. But in reality Sanford had already been hired and it was made official two days after the Gophers’ 31-24 win over Auburn. But the decision to elevate Simon to co-offensive coordinator was a calculated move by Fleck.

Simon has an impressive track record developing wide receivers, from Corey Davis at Western Michigan to Tyler Johnson and Rashod Bateman at Minnesota. But he had never been an offensive coordinator prior to his promotion in 2020, and even then Sanford handled play-calling responsibilities. It would seem Simon’s lack of experience was a concern, but Fleck wanted to retain one of his top offensive assistants, who clearly has career aspirations.

The other knock against Simon is that he has never coached quarterbacks. But the Gophers already have a quarterbacks coach waiting in the wings who could easily pivot to the role of co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

Tight ends coach Clay Patterson was the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M University-Kingsville for six seasons, where his offenses broke 28 individual and 17 team passing records. From there, he moved on to Trinity Valley Community College, where he served as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. His offenses were prolific, shattering the all-time yards per game record at any level of football with a 656.1 yards per game average during the 2015 season. Patterson’s offenses also broke National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) records for total offense (7,778 yards in 2014) and plays in a season (938 in 2014).

Fleck could hand play-calling duties to Simon, promote Patterson to co-offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, and then hire a new tight ends coach.

I know there are fans holding out hope for a reunion with Ciarrocca, who was the architect of the Gophers’ high-powered offense in 2019. But the chances of that happening seem slim. His split with Minnesota was far from amicable, and prior to leaving for Penn State, he had already been tempted to take the offensive coordinator position at West Virginia the previous offseason. Ciarrocca is originally from Pennsylvania and wanting to be closer to his family in the area was part of the appeal of both West Virginia and Penn State.

Whatever direction Fleck decides to go in his search for a new offensive coordinator, we’ll keep you posted as the search develops.