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Smeltzer: Penn State Should Give This Guy a Strong Look for OC

Photo by Pittsburgh Sports Now: Brennan Marion

Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz was recently one of 57 coaches named a Broyles Award— presented annually to the nation’s top assistant coach— nominee.

Mike Yurcich wasn’t on the list.

Two days before the list came out, Penn State fired Yurcich, who had been its offensive coordinator since 2021.

An offensive mind who was on that list is UNLV coordinator Brennan Marion. Before this season, UNLV had one winning record since 2000.

UNLV’s currently 8-2 and ranked 18th in the country in scoring average. Running the “GoGo offense,” which Marion is the innovator of, UNLV’s had a program renaissance, and Marion’s received national acclaim.

Penn State’s offense has been criticized for being boring, and Marion’s scheme— which USA Today described as “a completely unorthodox offense marrying the tenets of old-school triple-option run games with modern-day spread concepts”—  is anything but. Here’s why head coach James Franklin and company should take a hard look at the 36-year-old in its OC search.

WHY PENN STATE SHOULD CONSIDER: TRACK RECORD

The first thing people look at with any coaching candidate is their track record. What have they accomplished? Where did they accomplish it? How difficult were the circumstances where it was accomplished? Marion checks that box because he’s been successful in multiple roles (OC, WR coach, QB coach) at multiple schools (Howard, Hawaii, Pitt) and circumstances. His last Power Five stop was at Texas, where he was the receivers coach and passing game coordinator. Texas’ passing game was hindered by starting QB Quinn Ewers missing almost a month due to injury, so Marion and co. didn’t get a chance to do maximum damage.

Marion and co. did plenty of damage at Pitt the year before.

The Fred Biletnikoff Award is presented annually to the nation’s top receiver. Pitt’s Jordan Addison won it in 2021. An article by The Athletic’s Alec Lewis referred to Marion as “the Pitt coach who launched (Addison’s) career.”

Also in 2021, Pitt QB Kenny Pickett played himself into a Heisman finalist and a first-round draft pick.

Marion— who was also Pitt’s unofficial passing game coordinator— worked with offensive coordinator Mark Whipple to help make Pitt’s passing game the best it had been since the Dan Marino years.

Within weeks of Pitt beating Wake Forest to win its first ACC title, Whipple left to become Nebraska’s OC. Many Pitt fans felt Marion should be promoted, but head coach Pat Narduzzi disagreed and instead went to the outside, hiring Frank Cignetti Jr. from Boston College. Pitt regressed from 11-2 to 9-4 last season, with many citing Cignetti as a reason for that regression. Now, Pitt’s 3-8, and, yeah, people aren’t too pleased with Cignetti.

Addison transferring to USC and Pickett running out of eligibility are big reasons why Pitt hasn’t come close to recapturing the magic of ‘21. But it’s hard to argue that Marion’s departure hasn’t been a factor.

WORKING WITH MARQUES HAGANS TO RESHAPE RECEIVERS ROOM

One of Marion’s big strengths is developing receivers. This goes back to when he was a player. Marion set the NCAA record for yards-per-catch at Tulsa.

During the 2023 season, many feel that the receivers room has been Penn State’s biggest weakness on either side of the ball. It’s hard to say how much blame, if any, first-year receivers coach Marques Hagans deserves for this. Aside from Kent State transfer Dante Cephas, Hagans didn’t recruit any of Penn State’s main receivers, and Yurcich received (no pun intended) criticism for not playing guys like Cephas, Omari Evans, Kaden Saunders and Malik McClain enough. In any case, Hagans proved his worth over 10 seasons coaching receivers at his alma mater Virginia, and he shouldn’t be dismissed by Penn State fans yet.

It’s not an insult to Hagans to say that Penn State having to capable people recruiting and developing receivers would be a positive.

Hagans’ predecessor, Taylor Stubblefield, was fired this winter because he wasn’t recruiting at the level Franklin wanted. With the exception of WR1 KeAndre Lambert-Smith, none of Penn State’s receivers have been consistent. So it was apparent to Franklin that Penn State’s recruiting at the receiver position wasn’t good enough, and it’s apparent to everybody that this season’s production hasn’t been good enough.

QB prospects like Drew Allar don’t come along often, and many feel that the receivers not cutting the mustard are a big reason Allar’s first season as starter hasn’t been a smash hit. It would be a shame if Allar never reaches his potential, and if he’s to reach it, he’ll need some help from his receivers.

Oh, and Marion’s currently UNLV’s QBs coach, so he could probably help Allar, too.

If Penn State hires Marion as OC, I’m confident he’ll get that help from the transfer portal.

Also, for whatever it’s worth, Marion and Hagans coached against each other in 2021 when Pitt played Virginia. So the two are, at the least, familiar with each other.

A RISING STAR

Penn State is going to be hiring its sixth full-time offensive coordinator of the Franklin era. The past two— Kirk Ciarrocca (2020) and Yurcich (2021-23) each had been Power Five OCs before, with Ciraocca coming from Minnesota and Yurcich having tours of duty at Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Texas.

I’m a firm believer that, when team’s look to hire coaches, they should be looking to hire somebody who’s noticeably different from the last guy, whether that differences comes in personality/coaching style or in background.

The fact that Marion’s only 36– Ciarrocca was 55 when he coached his first game at Penn State, Yurcich 45– and hasn’t been a Power Five OC yet will make some Penn State fans cautious, feeling he’s unproven. To me, it would make things feel fresh and add to the excitement.

Brennan Marion might or might not be Penn State’s best option. It’s far too early to make that determination.

James Franklin and Penn State might be able to do better than Brennan Marion. But, remember, Pat Narduzzi and Pitt thought that, and it was a mistake.

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