Wednesday, February 24, 2021

How Penn State OC Yurcich became a QB whisperer by pouring his ‘heart and soul’ into football


FEBRUARY 23, 2021 08:00 AM, 

UPDATED FEBRUARY 23, 2021 09:37 AM

Penn State football's new offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich talks about the type of offense that he plans to run during a call with reporters on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021. BY PENN STATE ATHLETICS

Mason Rudolph had to stay alert. Sitting in the quarterbacks room of Oklahoma State’s Sherman E. Smith Training Center in the fall of 2014, he could feel the nerves tingle throughout his body.

The then-freshman third-string Cowboys quarterback watched as Mike Yurcich, his offensive coordinator at the time, pointed to a whiteboard and surveyed the room. Yurcich was trying to decide who he’d call on to diagram the next play in front of the group. Even in Rudolph’s first season with the program, he knew he wasn’t safe. And he was almost certain that Yurcich would rip him a new one if he drew it up incorrectly.

“I had been studying my playbook, but you never know which play he might pick for the day,” Rudolph recently told the Centre Daily Times. “He kinda did that to me and the younger quarterbacks at the time because he knew we were still learning and he wanted to test my ability to retain information.”

Then only in his second year as a Division I offensive coordinator, Yurcich looked to prove his worth in Stillwater. So, he pushed himself — and those around him — to his absolute limit.

But even today, nearly three years after his time at Oklahoma State came to an end in 2018, Yurcich has maintained the same fire that first catapulted his career. It’s an approach that’s earned him a reputation as a quarterback whisperer of sorts — and it’s one that he’ll bring with him to Penn State, where he was hired to replace Kirk Ciarrocca as the Nittany Lions’ offensive coordinator last month.

“He kinda just had like a little bit of an extra grind, hustle, energy, excitement to him that I didn’t really see in a lot of the other coaches at the other Division I schools,” said Rudolph, now the backup quarterback for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “He pours his heart and soul into everything he does.”


It took just one interaction for Zach Zulli to be sold when a then-35-year-old Yurcich was hired as the offensive coordinator at Pennsylvania’s Division II Shippensburg University in 2011.

Zulli, a redshirt sophomore quarterback at the time, was all but set to transfer. He played several other positions for the Raiders, too — starting kick and punt returner, as well as backup receiver and backup running back — but he wasn’t getting on the field much aside from on special teams. So, he was ready to move on to a school that would give him the opportunity to play quarterback. That was before he spoke to Yurcich.

“As soon as I met Yurcich — like the first meeting — I knew this guy was special,” Zulli said. “Just the way he broke down film and his energy level — he had the passion for football like I do.”

Yurcich saw something in Zulli, and under his tutelage, Zulli said he learned “how to play again.”

Zulli went from barely getting on the field to starting at quarterback. But, because Yurcich recognized the then-unpolished quarterback’s potential, Zulli got “the worst” of Yurcich’s fiery nature. Zulli said he got “messed with, yelled at, cursed at — everything.”

“But the greatest thing was when I did something right, he would go insane,” Zulli said. “Like a good insane. Like, ‘Dude, that was freaking awesome — that was the best pass ever!’ Or, ‘Great freakin’ read!’ He was so enthusiastic and loved the game and loved everything about it.”

Oftentimes during practices, Yurcich would run out onto the field and act like a defensive back to show his players where defenders would be in a game.

There were also the several hours a day spent in the film room. Zulli said there were plenty of times when the team would only get through six plays in an hour when studying practice tape.

By the time Zulli was a redshirt junior in 2012, Yurcich’s second year with the program, Shippensburg’s offense was humming. The Raiders finished that season ranked No. 1 in Division II in total offense with 529.92 yards per game and No. 2 in passing offense with 387.69 yards per game.

At the end of the year, Zulli took home the Harlon Hill Trophy, an annual award given to the top player in Division II, in a campaign in which he tied the Division II record for touchdown passes in a season with 54.

“It was a lot,” Zulli said. “But you know what? It paid off. I mean, shit, I won the Heisman of Division II. So, I was obviously doing something right. I mean, he taught me everything.”


After Yurcich was hired by Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy as the Cowboys’ offensive coordinator in 2013 after two seasons at Shippensburg, he wasted no time putting together a roster for the future.

One of the first recruits he secured was Rudolph, then a four-star prospect out of Rock Hill, South Carolina.

Rudolph noticed Yurcich’s intensity and passion right away during the recruitment process. He committed just four months after being offered a scholarship in February 2013. And when he arrived on campus as an early enrollee in the spring of 2014, everything he’d suspected about Yurcich was confirmed.

“A lot of times, you’ll get kinda that older coach that’s been in the system a while, that’s been there for a decade or so,” Rudolph said. “And they kinda get flatlined; they kinda get a little bit complacent with where they are and making their money. And you could tell from the very beginning that Mike had a vision for his own career.”

Yurcich was so hungry to demonstrate that he belonged at the Division I level that some nights he’d sleep on the couch in his office at the team facility. Often, Rudolph had to remind him: “You need to go home to your wife!”

When Rudolph won the starting job with three games left in his freshman year, Yurcich began inviting him to meet with the offensive staff on Mondays, the team’s off day, to ensure that Oklahoma State’s game plan was tailored to his quarterback. This helped the two build chemistry and cohesion.

“When it came to game day, I could a lot of times anticipate what he was gonna call,” Rudolph said.

Rudolph went on to achieve back-to-back 4,000-plus-yard passing seasons in 2016 and ‘17 and won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award — an award given annually to the top upperclassmen quarterback in the country — as a senior.

And as a result, Oklahoma State’s offenses were among the nation’s best. In 2016, the Cowboys ranked No. 17 in points per game and No. 12 in yards per game; in 2017, they ranked No. 4 in points per game and No. 5 in yards per game.

Though Rudolph finished his collegiate career as the winningest quarterback in Oklahoma State history before being selected in the third-round of the the 2018 NFL draft by the Steelers, he had to earn everything throughout his four years.


Making a name for himself with the development of Zulli at Shippensburg and Rudolph at Oklahoma State propelled Yurcich’s career.

He left the Cowboys after the 2018 season to become the quarterbacks coach at Ohio State, where he helped quarterback Justin Fields to a third-place finish in Heisman Trophy voting in Fields’ first year as a starter in 2019. Then, last season, he served as Texas’ offensive coordinator — leading the Longhorns to finish No. 8 in points per game and No. 19 in yards per game behind star quarterback Sam Ehlinger.

“We talk about the quarterbacks that we’ve been able to coach (and) how fortunate I’ve been in my career,” Yurcich said earlier this month. “Those aren’t just notches in the belt or resume builders. You’re also learning from those elite quarterbacks — learning a lot.”

Yurcich made it a priority to gain insight from his quarterbacks, even after he was done coaching them.

In his six seasons at Oklahoma State, Yurcich kept in frequent contact with Zulli, asking his former signal caller for advice from a different vantage point — everything from what to do against a Cover 4 to how to handle a snap count in a loud stadium.

A willingness to receive input from his quarterbacks has allowed Yurcich to continue to evolve as an offensive coordinator.

Penn State head coach James Franklin said Yurcich’s track record of molding quarterbacks was a significant factor in his decision to bring him in, especially after the struggles the Nittany Lions had at the position last season. Starting redshirt junior quarterback Sean Clifford finished 2020 with 16 passing touchdowns and nine interceptions through nine games, while completing only 60.6 percent of his throws.

“I think that’s another big part of this — getting back to that position playing at a high level, and even taking the next step of playing really, really high-level football,” Franklin said last month. “And I think we all know — whether it’s NFL, college or high school — that position is critical to your overall team’s success.”

With backup redshirt sophomore quarterback Will Levis transferring to Kentucky, Clifford seems like the likely starter for a third consecutive season. But, regardless of whether it’s Clifford or an incoming transfer behind center for the Nittany Lions this fall, Yurcich’s work will be cut out for him.

Both Zulli and Rudolph are more than confident that whoever that player is will excel under Yurcich’s guidance, though.

While Rudolph won’t soon forget what it felt like to wait anxiously to be called on as a freshman in the Oklahoma State quarterbacks room, it’s the memory of Yurcich’s halftime locker room tirades that will be forever etched in his mind.

But at least by then he knew it was mostly all out of love.

“There were some really good, motivating, inspirational butt-rippings, butt-chewings that took place,” Rudolph said. “And we all became better for it.”

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