Q&A with Mississippi State Coach Joe Moorhead

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Photo by Trevor Birchett

Joe Moorhead was hired as the Mississippi State head coach this offseason after Dan Mullen left to become the head coach of the Florida Gators. Penn State hired Moorhead to be its offensive coordinator before the 2016 season after he went 38-13 in four years as the head coach of Fordham in the FCS. The Nittany Lions went 11-3 last season, won the Big Ten and reached the Rose Bowl. They then went 10-2 this season with running back Saquon Barkley serving as a Heisman Trophy candidate throughout the campaign.

Moorhead offered his thoughts on coaching high school football in a recent interview with FNF Coaches.

This is typically the time of year to take stock of a program and make big-picture changes. How is it different in your first year with a new program?

“It’s kind of where I’m at right now as a new head coach. During the weeks of April, our assistant coaches go on the road and do evaluations. I’m left in the office to look back at the recruiting process. I look at winter conditioning and spring ball and decide what things we did well, and what we can improve. We’ll look back at last fall – evaluating the organization and execution – and make an in-season plan. The coaches come back, and we start preparing for the first three opponents.”

What trends are you noticing in the SEC as you review last season’s tape?

“Everywhere I’ve been, we have an offseason research project for the offense, defense and special teams. We look at pro teams and college teams that run similar systems. We look at statistical data and learn what people at the top are doing well. In the SEC, to be honest, we’ve been consumed with ourselves. We’re looking into what we need to do to get ready for the season. I haven’t looked into what anyone else is doing. First, we’ll lay the foundation for our program.”

Have you tried to market the program to the fan base or potential recruits to drum up excitement?

“It’s actually been the reverse. My plane landed and I was met with 2,500 people with signs and cowbells asking me for autographs. That’s a memorable thing—that outpouring of new support. They served cheese fries and handed out t-shirts. I’m speaking at every engagement possible to share the vision of the program and let them know why 2018 is going to be a great season.”

What advice would you give a high school coach looking to market his program?

“I think it’s important for most teams to reach out to the youth football program and the middle school. High school football is the fabric of a community, and it galvanizes people. When you go to a game on Friday or Saturday, everybody knows the faces and can integrate themselves into what’s happening on the field. It’s a holistic experience.”

Have you found any new technology that’s helped you as a coach?

“We’ve really started to dive into analytics. We’ve had people come in and say what’s been beneficial for them, and we plan to use that more this season.”

You mentioned winter conditioning earlier. How important was it for you to establish a strong strength and conditioning program?

“I think it’s critically important that the strength and conditioning staff is on the same page as you. They spend more time with the players than most of the assistants. You want them to be culture-drivers and an extension of the staff. We want speed and explosive development. We want to reinforce discipline, work ethic and selfless attention to detail. Aside from physically getting ready for camp and the season, we want them building the mental side as well.”

What more can high school coaches do to help with recruiting?

“Most coaches I’ve seen are great. There’s a proliferation of social media and technology that makes it easier to connect with college recruiters. They have lists ready and HUDL links and Twitter handles – all the info you need from an athletic and social perspective.”

Do you keep tabs on the social media accounts of your recruits?

“We’re very active on social media as a staff. The area coordinator and position coach will communicate through those applications. I haven’t seen anything from a Twitter profile that is cause for concern, but I can understand why other coaches are cautious. The things that the kids are putting out there can impact the college.”

How do you stress the importance of academics within your program?

“Our academic support staff does a fantastic job. Our kids come in and put in the time with academic support hours. Tutors are available to everybody on the team. We go over their progress on a bi-weekly basis. Just as the strength staff is important, the academic support staff goes hand in hand with the coaching staff.”


Moorhead’s Path to Coaching

As a collegiate performer at Fordham University, Moorhead was a three-year starter at quarterback and a team captain as a senior. He was a second-team All-Patriot League pick as a senior, finishing 13th nationally in total offense. He graduated with school single-season records for completions and passing yards. Following his collegiate career, Moorhead spent time in the training camp of the Milwaukee Mustangs of the Arena Football League after playing the 1996 season for the Munich Cowboys of the E.F.A.F.

Moorhead credits Rutgers Director of Player Development Nick Quartaro for inspiring him to go into coaching following his playing career. Quartaro served as head coach at Fordham for four seasons (1994 to 1997).

“I had dreams and aspirations to play in the NFL as a pro quarterback, but that fizzled when I got cut from the Arena League,” Moorhead said. “Under Nick Quartaro, I had the autonomy to audible at the line of scrimmage. That sparked my interest to get into coaching.”

Moorhead, 44, arrives in Starkville after spending the 2016 and 2017 seasons as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach on James Franklin’s Penn State staff. Tabbed as Sports Illustrated and Yahoo’s No. 1 rising assistant in college football in August 2017, Moorhead transformed the Nittany Lions offensively and spearheaded them to a combined 21-5 record, a 17-3 mark in Big Ten regular season play and the 2016 Big Ten Championship.

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