Joe Moorhead, Saquon Barkley, and the Creative Simplicity in Maximizing a Star Running Back

by Tyler Morales

Football strategy at it’s basic level is fairly simple: Get your best players the ball. It’s a dynamic that is prevalent in high school football, but as coaching egos and attempts at structure and stability persist up the latter of the football world, the focus on this primal stragedy begins to fade away.

For teams with top running back talents, college and NFL play callers have long “played to their strengths” as a runner, and letting the rest of the supporting cast pick up the slack, even in an offensive frustration. But as Sean McVay most notably found creative ways to maximize Todd Gurley, so too as Joe Moorhead maximize Saquon Barkley at Penn State.

Saquon Barkley was among the best college football players the country has seen in recent memory, not only thanks to his lateral and explosive running ability, but also his remarkable versatility to work as a weapon across the Penn State offense.

Then-Penn State’s offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead, who used Penn State as pit stop between dominating the FCS level at Fordham and the getting a chance to be a head coach in the SEC at Mississippi State, utilized Barkley ‘s versatility by maximizing him in space, creating isolation opportunities, and flexing him to a variety of alignments to took advantage of his elite athleticism.

It’s not revolutionary to get your best players the ball. But Moorhead showcased that it still takes creativity to do fulfill this basic core strategy.

Split Action Used to Perfection

In the run game, Moorhead put Barkley in a lot of split action runs that gave Barkley open lanes one on one against a safety. Gesicki is such a weapon in the pass game that you have to account for every type of backfield motion he does.

The Nebraska safety took a few false steps that followed Gesicki’s split action in the backfield. That false step leaves Barkley all the room he needed to take this to the house. Moorhead knows the weapon he has in Gesicki and uses him to Barkley’s advantage on this play.

In their matchup, Ohio State had a field day against the lackluster Penn State offensive line. One way Moorhead opted to counter a hard crashing defensive end is to stop his pursuit with a split zone run. Gesicki picking up the block against the crashing defensive end leaves Barkley a running lane against a defense that ate him up all game.

Offensive lineman #66  makes the key block above because that ultimately springs Barkley loose on this play. That Ohio State defender was lined up against Gesicki and he was caught looking at the backfield movement that the split zone caused. Once he realized it was a run play he was already engaged by #66 and Barkley was gone for the races. Moorhead knows how difficult it is to defend a split zone run and with the threat of Gesicki it makes for beautiful run plays.

Against Nebraska, Moorhead drew up a beautiful RPO play that involved Gesicki in a split action. Gesicki showed backfield went across the formation but instead of picking up the defensive end he went out for a pass to the flat. This is the threat running a split zone look with a dominant pass catching tight end.

#49 follows Gesicki to the flat leaving a man down in the box which is exactly what Moorhead wants. Barkley was able to walk in the end zone for one of the easier touchdowns he’ll ever record. This RPO call by Moorhead was a thing of beauty and it was able to free a lane up for Barkley.

Saquon the Quarterback in the Read Option

Moorhead ran a bunch of option plays with Barkley as the QB and McSorley as the RB. At first, these plays never made sense to me but at the end of the day Moorhead wanted the ball in his best player’s hands to make a play.

The play is designed for Barkley to start wide to get the linebackers to follow the backfield action. He then cutbacks to the open lane created by the left tackle. The Penn State tackle walls off #3 from Michigan to prevent him from crashing down and making the play. By walling off this defensive end it forces him to fly up field which creates the lane Barkley needed to run.

The evil genius that is Joe Moorhead even used Barkley as the quarterback to run RPO’s. Against Michigan State, Moorhead called an RPO with Barkley that resulted in a first down. Moorhead knows that defenses will pack the box when they see Barkley at QB because all they have shown is run plays out of it. This time he decides he should let Barkley throw it over the crashing defenders.

Get Your Best Players the Ball in the Passing Game

In the pass game, Moorhead loved to put Barkley in the slot and try to isolate him against a safety or a linebacker. Against Michigan, Barkley lined up in the slot and ran a slot fade against a linebacker. One of the key’s to this play was having Gesicki run a vertical route because it made the safety have to honor the route which left Barkley one on one. If that Gesicki route was not ran the safety could have cheated over and been able to make a play on the ball. 

Moorhead’s key is to iso Barkley any chance he can get and this is just another example of why he loves to do that.

Moorhead also uses Barkley as a 3rd down killer. Penn State ran a simple mesh concept on third down here vs. Michigan State. Barkley is lined up tight in the slot and runs the drag in the mesh. Defending Barkley in the slot is difficult because if you play up on him he runs right by you and if you play off he runs under you. 

The rub routes by Gesicki and Hamilton give Barkley the space he needs to separate fro the safety. In the NFL, Barkley will continue to be a matchup nightmare on third downs, not that dissimilar to Reggie Bush's tenure with the Saints. Barkley's confidence as a receiver and Moorhead's focus on creating opportunities to utilize him there shouldn't stop when Barkley and Moorhead are different places next season.

The way Joe Moorhead was able to utilize Barkley was a treat to watch and something most coaches should sit down to study. He wanted to get Barkley the ball to make plays early and often, maximizing his best player in ways that most play-callers fall short in. By using split zone runs, he cleared defenders from the box and allowed Barkley to one cut and attack the lanes created by the offensive line.

Saquon Barkley is one of the best running backs we have seen in some time but let’s not discredit the work Joe Moorhead did with this offense. He’s leading a revolution back to simplicity: Get your best player the ball, in as many creative and opportunities as possible.