With Kirk Ciarrocca back, Gophers seek improved passing game in 2022

Chris Autman-Bell had two catches for 40 yards and a touchdown in Minnesota's 20-13 win at Purdue on Saturday. ((credit: University of Minnesota Athletics))

Kirk Ciarrocca is back as the University of Minnesota football team’s offensive coordinator for the 2022 season, and there might not be two players happier about it than Tanner Morgan and Chris Autman-Bell.

Ciarrocca ran the offense in 2019, when the Gophers had their best season in 115 years and had one of their most prolific offenses in the history of the program. Morgan set single-season records in passing yards (3,253), touchdowns (30), completion percentage (66), passing yards per game (250.2) and passing yards in a bowl game (278 against Auburn in the Outback Bowl), among others.

After the season, Ciarrocca departed for Penn State and was an offensive analyst at West Virginia last year. The last two seasons, Mike Sanford Jr. ran Minnesota's offense, and things changed for Morgan. The last two seasons, Morgan had a combined 17 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. He heard the groans and the frustration from fans as the passing game struggled last year.

The Gophers attempted 257 passes last season. That was the fewest in Division I football, other than Navy, Army and Air Force, all service academies who feature run-based offenses. Minnesota averaged 162 passing yards per game last season, ranking 118th in FBS. Morgan was candid when asked about last year's passing offense after last Saturday's spring practice that was open to the public and media.

"Obviously in assessing last season, we have to take a huge step forward in what we did last year. We’ve got to do it more efficient, we’ve got to make more plays," Morgan said.

Morgan had a historic 2019 season under Ciarrocca. It also helped that he had two future NFL receivers in Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson. This year, the package looks to be a combination of Autman-Bell, Dylan Wright and Daniel Jackson, with Michael Brown-Stephens and Brevyn Spann-Ford mixed in.

Autman-Bell is back as the Gophers' leading receiver with 114 career catches for 1,756 yards and 12 touchdowns in 44 games over four seasons. Wright, Brown-Stephens, Jackson and Spann-Ford combined for 104 catches, 1,245 yards and five touchdowns in 2021. Wright, Brown-Stephens and Jackson all had at least 20 catches last season.

Thus far in spring practice, the tunnel screen, the slant and the deep throws have returned in individual drills and team sessions. Saturday, Autman-Bell caught pretty much everything Morgan threw his way.

"We’re just attacking more, taking shots. We got guys who can make those plays down the field and be explosive. He trusts we’re going to make plays, and we’re doing it in practice," Autman-Bell said. "It was like he never left, man. That’s the guy we need in this program."

The Gophers feel they have the athletes and the weapons on the offense to make the passing offense explosive again. We’ve got five months before getting the first true look, when Minnesota hosts Jerry Kill and New Mexico State on Sept. 1 at Huntington Bank Stadium.

The Gophers will hold their annual Spring Game on April 30, and we’ll see what the passing attack looks like then after 14 spring practices. For now, they’re confident with Ciarrocca and Morgan back together that Minnesota can have a prolific passing attack again.

The question is, can it ultimately lead to a Big Ten West title? For now, they’re focused on the details they hope can get them there.

"It’s been awesome. It’s been a long process already, a lot of meetings. Offensive football is about 11 people executing the play to the best of their ability. If one person doesn’t execute, that play might be schemed up perfectly but it might not work," Morgan said. "Incredibly thankful to have him back here and pushing us every day to get better."