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Gavin Wimsatt and Kirk Ciarrocca get fresh start at Rutgers together



Photo credit Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Gavin Wimsatt’s first full season of playing college football was not easy. The former 4-star recruit began the season in a system where quarterbacks were rotated in and out play by play at times. He injured his ankle and missed three games. When he was finally healthy enough to play again, two major changes had occurred. His offensive coordinator that he was recruited by to play in his system, Sean Gleeson, had been fired. Further, promising freshman running back Samuel Brown had just suffered a season ending injury.

While Wimsatt showed flashes of greatness with his breakaway running ability and rocket arm, it was a rocky second half of the season for him. He completed just 65 of 145 pass attempts for a 44.8% completion percentage. That was the second lowest in FBS football. Wimsatt threw for 757 yards, 5 touchdowns and 7 interceptions overall while making 5 starts. He also rushed for 156 yards.

With the arrival of Kirk Ciarrocca as offensive coordinator, it’s a chance for Wimsatt to reset and have a fresh start. Having a proven quarterback developer as his coach is the best offseason gift he could have been given.

“I’m excited about getting a chance to work with all the quarterbacks here at Rutgers,” Ciarrocca said at his introductory press conference on Monday. Gavin, I know has a lot of talent and a lot of ability, so that excites me. But I’m just looking forward to getting work with him and that’s what I need to do.”

Ciarrocca has been successful throughout his career in developing quarterbacks and leading them to great success. He mentored Joe Flacco at Delaware. He set almost two dozen school records before becoming a first round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft. Flacco was a Super Bowl MVP in leading the Baltimore Ravens to a world championship. He has had a long, successful NFL career.

At Western Michigan from 2013-2016, Ciarrocca mentored Zach Terrell, who set the program record for career passing yards. In 2016, Terrell had the best TD to INT ration in FBS with 34 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Western Michigan went 13-0 and were MAC champions before losing by one score to Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl.

At Minnesota in two stints spread over six years, Ciarrocca led the development of Tanner Morgan. After being a MAC level recruit, he followed PJ Fleck and Ciarrocca to Minnesota. In 2019, he set the program’s single season records for passing yards and touchdown passes. As Dan Dietzel said on The Scarlet Faithful podcast recently, his performance was not the same after Ciarrocca left.

Now Ciarrocca’s biggest challenge at Rutgers in turning around one of the worst power five offenses is getting the most out of Gavin Wimsatt. Of course, Evan Simon and incoming freshman Ajani Sheppard absolutely should get a fair shot at winning the starting job as well. The quarterback room could still grow this offseason. However, as things stand now, it’s clear Wimsatt is the most talented QB on the roster despite his struggles last season.

“I’m just excited to get to work with all the kids. I think that kids are excited about it,” Ciarrocca said. “I know I’m excited about it and looking forward to teaching him and doing this. You know this is what I do, right. I go to programs where the offenses might not have had as much success as we’d want, and then we build an offense there, and if you look at my track record, we’ve been able to do that. So I’m excited about the challenge here.”

While Wimsatt has a ton of talent, how Ciarrocca approaches his development will be fascinating to watch. His mechanics and decision making are two key areas that both Wimsatt needs to continue to improve on. He’ll have to as Ciarrocca prioritizes both areas as well.

“I think in developing a quarterback, I really think there’s two major areas that we work on that I believe in, is from the waist down, his feet, from his platform to pocket movement, those type of things,” Ciarrocca explained. “We work really hard understanding the rhythm of the pass play, what it should be, tying that to your drop, those type of things.”

Ciarrocca continued, “And then we work really hard from the neck up, developing him up here. He need to be an extension of me out there on the field, and so maybe the most important thing I do is teach him how to think deductively, and I want him to think like I would think. But he doesn’t always have to come up with the same conclusion that I would come up with, right. But he needs to have the same process, so I know what he’s thinking; how he’s thinking about things when he looks at the defense out there, so I know what play to get him into from that standpoint.”

In terms of what Ciarrocca values most in a quarterback, he focused on three specific areas.

“If you throw a forward pass, if you throw the ball forward, the guy has to catch it in order to advance the football. So I value accuracy among everything,” Ciarrocca emphasized. “I would love for arm strength, the better the arm, the more things you can do, the better you can stretch the field. But the ball still — it doesn’t matter if you can throw it 70 yards down the field; if the guy is not going to catch it, it doesn’t matter. So accuracy is No. 1.”

He added, “The stronger the arm, the better. But we cannot sacrifice accuracy. ”

Accuracy has been an issue for Wimsatt. Its an area he must improve on in order to fulfill his massive potential. Having stability with Ciarrocca as his quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator should help. He has a history of tailoring his play calling to the strengths of his quarterback. He’ll determine what Wimsatt is best at and throws he’s most comfortable with. Last season, Wimsatt was not give a lot of safety valves to throw short to in an effort to establish a rhythm. I’d be very surprised if Wimsatt didn’t improve his accuracy playing for Ciarrocca, who will likely take this approach based on his past.

Ciarrocca continues, “No. 2 is — and this is in no particular order. No. 2 would be functional intelligence. He has to be able to think deductively and learn from his mistakes.”

The good news for Wimsatt is that he has plenty of film to review with Ciarrocca. He could learn and benefit from his fresh perspective.

Lastly, Ciarrocca said, “And then the third thing is leadership. They are the three things that I look the most at. We cannot sacrifice leadership. The quarterback position, you know, we are in the largest media market in the United States right here, right. He’s the face of the program. So he’s got to have leadership, also, and be able to lead the team.”

Obviously, spring practice is crucial for Ciarrocca and all the quarterbacks. Head coach Greg Schiano announced during the press conference that the Scarlet-White game will be played on April 29. With 15 spring practices allowed, that means Rutgers will likely begin sometime in late March.

“I need to get out there. Spring ball will be really, really important for me to get a chance to see these guys,” Ciarrocca said. “It’s one thing for me to put the film on but we’re six months later. This is a new season with these guys and just kind of see where they are at: What are his strengths; what are his weaknesses; how does that fit into the system; what do we need to emphasize, that type of thing; how does he learn; how does he learn from his mistakes. These are all questions that are going to be answered once we get out on the field and get a chance to start to work with him.”

Ciarrocca’s arrival isn’t just a fresh start for Wimsatt at Rutgers. It’s also an opportunity for the offensive coordinator to succeed at a place he did not in his first tenure over a decade ago. He was the co-offensive coordinator in 2009 and 2010 before ultimately getting let go by Schiano. It’s something that shaped Ciarrocca’s career. He then went on to have major success at both Western Michigan and Minnesota. Coming back to Rutgers is a chance to get it right this time.

“I don’t think without the experience that I had at Rutgers, I’m not sure I would have been equipped to handle that the way that we did and been able to turn it around as quickly as we did at those two places,” Ciarrocca said bluntly. “So I think that’s probably the biggest difference in me now is I know exactly — I feel like I know exactly what it takes to get an offense to operate at a high level and it doesn’t happen overnight. You know, you guys might not be able to see it. It might be just in small little increments.”

He added, “I tell the guys — I tell the coaches all the time when we were doing this is, guys, just keep fighting for the inches because at the end of the day, those inches are going to add up and at some point we are going to be good. But without getting those inches, keep grinding toward it, we’re never going to get there. So I’m just sure of where I want to go and how I want to do it now.”

It seems logical to think that getting the most out of Gavin Wimsatt is the quickest path with the highest ceiling for Ciarrocca to turn the Rutgers offense around. Of course, Wimsatt has to embrace this opportunity to learn and develop under Ciarrocca. Together, not only can they move Rutgers forward, but they can rewrite their own legacies within the program. Both had rough starts in part due to challenges that emerged that were out of their control. However, a new chapter is still to be written.

“I’m excited about the challenge here but I’m also excited not only about the challenge, but I’m excited about the program and where it’s at right now and the infrastructure that’s set up; the three recruiting classes that they have had already, the culture that they have here,” Ciarrocca said. “I think I’m going to be at the right place at the right time right now.”

Rutgers fans hope that his sentiment is true. If Wimsatt and Ciarrocca can become the right fit for each other, it would give the program positive momentum next season and beyond.

Listen here to our latest podcast episode with full analysis and audio clips from Ciarrocca’s introductory press conference. 

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