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Memphis and Penn State coaching changes alter aura of upcoming Cotton Bowl

Memphis’ new HC Ryan Silverfield prepares for the post-Norvell era, while Penn State operates under new OC.

Steve Helwick

Memphis and Penn State produced two of the best seasons in the 2019 college football campaign, combining for 22 wins entering one of the sport’s six prestigious bowls. However, some of the engineers that helped construct these successful runs won’t be present for the culmination of it all in the 2019 Goodyear Cotton Bowl.

Memphis Tigers

On the day Memphis won the American Conference throne and earned a Cotton Bowl bid, it was announced that head coach Mike Norvell would leave for Florida State. Norvell becomes the first coach to change programs after earning a New Year’s Six bowl since Scott Frost in 2017, who completed a rare and impressive move by settling into Nebraska while coaching UCF to a victory in that season’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Norvell’s decision to not coach in Arlington allowed Memphis to operate under interim head coach and offensive line coach Ryan Silverfield this December. After five days of holding the position, Silverfield shed his interim status and was hired as the full-time coach. His first game at Memphis will be the highest-stakes game in the program’s history.

“I have been fortunate to coach in a lot of great stadiums. I’ve coached a few years back with the Vikings (OL/DL assistant coach from 2008-13) against the Cowboys, so obviously, this will be a little bit different feel to it for me, but I’m very excited,” Silverfield said. “At the end of the day, this is about the players and how they’re going to be able to act, right? I want them to treat this — even though it’s not — just like it’s any other game and be mindful of what we have go to do and the task at hand.”

One of Silverfield’s primary goals is to sustain the culture Norvell left behind with the Tigers. A primary advantage of an internal hire is familiarity with scheme, play-calling, and culture, all aspects Silverfield plans to retain heading into the critical game.

“(Mike Norvell) helped set the standard and culture here at Memphis, obviously, a fantastic play caller and a fine human being,” Silverfield said. “Learned a lot, the way you structure a program. And obviously, he has had success and will continue to have success. But with all my coaching careers... a lot of times you learn what to do, what not to do, and I’ll take that all as we continue to build our Memphis football program for the future and beyond.”

For the players, moving on from a 4-year coach like Norvell is difficult, and while the program has unwavering support of Silverfield headed into the matchup, the “1-0” mentality Norvell established still remains with the makeshift coaching staff.

“Coach Silverfield, he’s a great coach, I love the guy, and at the end of the day to win a football game, we all have to be one,” running back Kenneth Gainwell said. “Everybody was excited (when he got the job). We’re were all happy for him. I’m happy for him. Once we saw him come out, it’s time to work... same mindset.”

Norvell previously called the plays in the Tigers’ offense, but that duty will be passed onto first-year offensive coordinator Kevin Johns, who is with his fourth different program in four years (Indiana, Western Michigan, Texas Tech). Although the positions have changed, Silverfield and his staff remain a familiar cast of coaches for the players involved in the program.

“He’s a guy who’s always been here for us, so it’s nobody new coming in,” wide receiver Antonio Gibson said on Silverfield. “We all respect him well, we’ve all been around him. We trust him, we love him, and with Coach Johns calling the plays, he’d been under Norvell. The school he was at last year (Texas Tech), he had a good season so we trust him too and we’re just rolling with it.”

The torch of defensive play-calling has been passed as well in the overhauled staff, as defensive coordinator Adam Fuller joined Norvell at Florida State. That leaves linebackers coach Kevin Clune in charge of Memphis’ defense.

“At the end of the day, that shouldn’t affect us,” Silverfield said. “(Norvell and Fuller) are very, very key pieces to our success this year. But the nice thing is we’ve got a wonderful staff. We’re not looking at who’s not here. We’re looking at what we have right now. I think people put a little grin on their face and say, ‘Okay, we got what we got what we need. Ready to go to war — ready to go to battle on Saturday.’”

Penn State Nittany Lions

Penn State head coach James Franklin signed a 6-year, $34.7 million extension in the first week of December, but that doesn’t mean Penn State is free of personnel changes. Offensive coordinator Ricky Rahne became the second of his position to leave the Nittany Lions in the past three years to pursue a head coaching job. Rahne took the top position at Old Dominion, leaving Penn State tight ends coach Tyler Bowen as the play caller for the Cotton Bowl.

“Coach Bowen’s my man,” All-American tight end Pat Freiermuth said. “I was a little iffy when Coach Rahne moved to quarterbacks and he came in as tight ends because I was a recruit and I just signed, so I was like, ‘Who is this coach?’ I didn’t know anything about him, but he’s awesome. He took me under his wings when I first got here. I’ve learned so much from him not only about football, but as a man.”

Freiermuth and fellow tight end Nick Bowers accounted for roughly a quarter of Penn State’s receptions this season. With a tight end based coach running the offense at AT&T Stadium, Freiermuth is excited to witness the offense run through his primary position coach.

“There’s been some jokes around the way, and I’ve always told him he’s been acting totally different now that he’s OC, but I’m very happy that he gets the opportunity to play call in this game,” Freiermuth said.

Hours prior to Thursday’s Cotton Bowl media day press conferences, Penn State officially hired Minnesota offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca to the same position in Happy Valley for the 2020 football season.

“I think for the younger guys and the guys who are gonna be here next year, it’s gonna be awesome for them,” senior guard Steven Gonzalez said. “He did a really good job against us (Minnesota scored the most points on Penn State’s this season — 31). I’m excited for these guys, I’m excited for them to get to work with him, and he’s gonna be really good for Penn State.”

While Ciarrocca will not coach the team under extremely short notice, Franklin remains excited about the hire and the sustained excellence it can lead for the program.

“We wanted to get a proven play caller, a guy that’s got a history of calling plays but also somebody that our systems were similar, that there would be some carryover,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said. “As an offensive coordinator, an experienced offensive coordinator, an intelligent offensive coordinator, we’re used to adjusting. So someone that would be willing to come in and say, ‘Okay, what can we keep the same from a verbiage and terminology standpoint? What are the things that I have conviction about that I need to do in terms of calling the offense to be comfortable?’”