Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Mike Yurcich’s energy leads to early positive reviews for revamped Penn State offense


Daniel Gallen,

Mar 23, 2021

STATE COLLEGE — Jake Pinegar typically isn’t intimately involved with either side of the ball during Penn State practices in his role as kicker, but the junior has certainly taken note of new Lions offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich as he installs his system during spring practice.

It’s the second year in a row the Lions are learning a new offense with their third offensive coordinator in three years. A benefit for Penn State in Year 1 under Yurcich, though, is the in-person practices that were absent a year ago for Kirk Ciarrocca’s lone season in State College as James Franklin’s offensive coordinator.

And that’s where Yurcich has made an early impression on his players, whether they’re technically part of his unit or not.

“He brings a lot of fire, a lot of energy, a lot of energy, a lot of fire, and from what I can see, the offense looks great,” Pinegar said over Zoom on Monday. “I’ve talked to [quarterback] Sean [Clifford] and all these other guys about the offense, and they’ve said they love it, and they’re ready to get after it. I think the biggest thing, too, is everybody has just been working incredibly hard this offense.

“I think there’s a lot of juice, a lot of competitiveness and a lot of drive that the offense is looking for.”

Guard/center Mike Miranda echoed Pinegar when it comes to Yurcich’s energy. Miranda said Yurcich showcased it during winter workouts over the past few months, and it’s carried over into the first week of on-field practices.

And Yurcich showcases it in different ways. He doesn’t just raise his voice or run around the field with his different position groups. It’s a little bit of everything.

“He’s a really verbal guy,” Miranda said over Zoom on Monday. “He does run around at practice a lot, but whenever we’re at team periods, we’re doing walkthroughs, you always know where he is on the field. You can always hear his voice, you always know what he’s saying, whether it’s to the offense or whether it’s to the quarterbacks or another position group. His presence is just felt as a coordinator while we’re on the field practicing, working.”

Of course, Yurcich’s personality is moot if the Penn State offense doesn’t see results. That’s why Franklin, rather surprisingly, moved on from Ciarrocca in favor of Yurcich.

Last season, Yurcich was at Texas and helped coach quarterback Sam Ehlinger to a 26-touchdown, five-interception season where Ehlinger averaged 8.0 yards per attempt and posted two five-touchdown games, plus another four-score outing.

In 2019, Yurcich was the passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Ohio State. That year, quarterback Justin Fields, projected to be a top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, threw 41 touchdowns to just three interceptions. And prior to that, Yurcich spent six years under Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State in the pass-happy Big 12.

Everywhere Yurcich has been, big numbers have followed, which could bode well for Clifford, a stable of interesting running backs and a group of young playmakers at wide receivers. And those numbers typically come quickly, which has stood out to the players early.

“The thing I like most about the offense is it’s uptempo,” tight end Brenton Strange said Monday over Zoom. “I don’t think a lot of defenses just want to run the whole entire game, and that’s what we do. We’re uptempo, fast, get the defense on its heels and create explosive plays. That’s what I like the most about it.”

Miranda thinks when the season comes around, Penn State can be in better shape than its opponents and wear them down during the final stages of a game.

But a key part of that stems from the opportunity right now to prepare for the season. A year ago at this time, the Lions were learning an offense over Zoom while attempting to adjust to a world upended by the coronavirus pandemic. Now, though, Zoom sessions are “just kind of a normal thing,” Pinegar said, and the Lions are getting on-field instruction in March as opposed to later in the summer.

Plus, the loss of meeting time a year ago made players more appreciative for their chance to get together in the same room and go over the new offense this spring.

“Every meeting is an opportunity for us to learn because we can see how much different it can be, how much better it can make us,” Miranda said.

Yurcich’s addition to the Penn State staff created some buzz and optimism around a unit that struggled with injuries and inconsistency during a 4-5 season in 2020. The Lions are trying to put that performance behind them, but there are still some questions that need to be answered, mainly surrounding Clifford, an offensive line looking to replace two starters and a running back room that is deep but has dealt with injuries.

But there’s still plenty of time between now and when Penn State is scheduled to kick off the season at Wisconsin on Sept. 4 for those questions to get answered. From his view, though, Pinegar has been impressed with the initial returns with Yurcich as the offensive coordinator, which could make for some busier Saturday afternoons for the kicker.

“They’re working really hard,” Pinegar said. “As a spectator, obviously, it’s not my area of expertise, but from what I see, it looks like they’re headed in a really good direction.”

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