Before every game that Matt Simon worked under Kirk Ciarrocca through six seasons, Simon would tell the former Gophers offensive coordinator to “have fun” when he headed up to the press box. The receivers coach never understood why this exasperated Ciarrocca so much.
He finally realized three months ago, when Ciarrocca left Minnesota for Penn State, and Simon became interim OC on short notice for the last week of the season. Another coach on the staff said those same words to Simon as he left to call plays for the first time.
“I literally felt in that moment exactly how Kirk probably felt,” Simon said. “I just wanted to say, ‘Shut up.’ ... I ended up texting Kirk right after the game and apologizing for telling him to have fun.”
Simon knows all too well the unique demands on an offensive coordinator, which is why he appreciates new offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr.’s current tough situation.
Sanford had only four spring football practices with the team before the coronavirus pandemic shuttered it all.
Saturday was supposed to be the Gophers spring game, a chance for Sanford to show his stuff in front of a TCF Bank Stadium crowd amped after an 11-2 season and making up for 2019’s spring game that was closed to the public because of weather.
Instead, the Gophers are all in their own homes, studying film, video chatting and working out as much as their surroundings allow.
Thus Sanford remains a bit of a mystery. He said back in January his style would revolve around efficiency, physicality, consistency, details. He’d use opportunities off the run game to throw downfield. He wouldn’t make wholesale changes to the Gophers’ success off run-pass, play-action.
“We want continuity for the players. We want them to hit the ground running, not taking a step back, whatsoever,” Sanford said in January. “A lot of what has been done on film has been extremely efficient and extremely explosive. … And so to come in and try to make them learn a bunch of new things would make absolutely no sense. But for us to try to find what’s been done and grow it, it makes a whole lot of sense.”
Picking up where the Gophers left off should be easier for Sanford considering the carry-over on offense. All but two starters return, and there’s plenty of depth to fill those positions, including Big Ten Receiver of the Year Rashod Bateman and 2018’s No. 1 running back, Mohamed Ibrahim. The offensive line is all back, as is the tight end rotation. All-Big Ten second-team quarterback Tanner Morgan leads it all.
Last season, the Gophers averaged more than 34 points per game and 432 yards per game.
“The experience is huge,” Morgan said. “… Our offensive unit, guys that have played a lot of football and played football at a high level. So that definitely helps. But again, we can’t be complacent, since there’s a lot of room for growth for us.”
Before he left campus, Morgan had already started working with Sanford, who doubles as Gophers quarterbacks coach, as Ciarrocca did. Morgan has focused on footwork and pocket presence, since Sanford noticed from film how he walked into some sacks last season. And while Morgan and his teammates won’t have that hands-on skill development, they can use this time to master the Gophers offense.
Morgan cited that as a specific goal, which maybe hints at how the Gophers really are perfecting under Sanford, not rebuilding.
“We’re going to keep a lot of the core belief systems in place that we’ve had offensively,” said Simon, who has added the title of co-offensive coordinator to his wide receivers coach duties.
Coach P.J. Fleck has never worried about Sanford’s transition. He’s wanted to work with Sanford for years and has shared many thorough conversations about offensive strategy with him. Sanford, a former head coach at Western Kentucky, came to Minnesota from Utah State, where he was offensive coordinator last season.
“You already know the fit,” Fleck said ahead of spring ball. “This isn’t an experiment, and all of a sudden you get there, and, ‘Oh boy, this guy’s in five-wide the entire time.’ That’s not what this was.
“He knew exactly what he’s getting himself into in terms of the actual offensive philosophy because it matches.”
Fans just might have to wait until the season opener Sept. 3 to see the similarities for themselves.