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Ciarrocca situation sets up unique storyline ahead of Guaranteed Rate Bowl; Esdale entering transfer portal

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Before Sunday’s announcement that West Virginia and Minnesota will meet December 28 in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl in Phoenix, the Mountaineers and Golden Gophers’ football programs had been tied together in recent days.

Kirk Ciarrocca, previously an offensive analyst at West Virginia, has become the Golden Gophers’ offensive coordinator after one season on the Mountaineers’ staff.

Neither West Virginia head coach Neal Brown nor Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck would commit to saying Ciarrocca was officially with the Golden Gophers during a media outing Sunday night, though both indicated the move was on the horizon. The Golden Gophers elected to not renew the contract of offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford Jr., who held that title at UM since January 2020.

“It’s a good question. It’s a unique situation,” third year WVU head coach Neal Brown said. “This is maybe a first in my career and we’re going to work through that. I don’t have a good answer for that right now. A unique matchup and we’ll figure it out here in the next day or so.”

“We needed a change on offense,” Fleck said. “Mike is a tremendous person and a wonderful football coach. Just felt like we needed some new direction in the leadership at that position. We’re working our way towards making a hire here very shortly.”

Fleck was then asked how Minnesota planned to proceed without Sanford’s presence in the bowl game and who would be in charge of the Golden Gophers’ offensive philosophy.

“We made a decision, but I’ll keep that internal right now as we continue to go forward,” Fleck said. “Our staff knows what we’re going to do and how we’re going to do it, but I’ll keep that internal as of right now. I really like our plan as we move forward.”

Minnesota confirmed Tuesday Ciarrocca will not participate in the bowl game. Wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator Matt Simon will call Minnesota’s offense.

“We are excited to welcome Kirk back to Minnesota,” Fleck said. “Kirk is one of the best offensive coordinators in the game, but he is also a tremendous person. We have a long professional history of working together, and I look forward to reuniting with him.

“Coach Brown and I have known each other for a long time and have a great relationship. With Kirk having worked at both schools (Minnesota from 2017-2019 and West Virginia in 2021), we both agreed to not have Kirk coach in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl with his knowledge of both teams personnel. When we made the decision to hire Kirk, we did not yet know our bowl opponent. Coach Brown and I both thought this would be best to avoid any awkwardness for both sets of student-athletes. It’s the right thing to do.”

Kirk Ciarrocca

Ciarrocca joined the WVU staff in March 2021, but has an extensive history with Fleck.

Ciarrocca was Fleck’s offensive coordinator at Western Michigan for four seasons before following him to Minnesota. Ciarrocca served as Minnesota’s offensive coordinator from 2017-2019, and was a 2019 semifinalist for the Broyles Award, presented to the top assistant coach in college football.

Citing a desire to be closer to his family, the York County, Pennsylvania native left Minnesota to become Penn State’s offensive coordinator in 2020, but the stint lasted only one season before he was fired.

Fleck and Brown’s relationship dates back some years and is centered around Ciarrocca.

“We had time to visit when I was back at Western Michigan,” Fleck said. “We kind of both have ties to my former coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. We both worked for him at different places. I heard about him when I was at Rutgers and worked for Greg Schiano and was under Kirk Ciarrocca. It dates all the way back to those days.

“[Brown] is a class act and a wonderful human being. He’s an incredible football coach with a very creative mind. We’ve had a chance to watch them here and there just because of the crossover with Maryland and he’s a very creative offensive mind. They play a very unique defense and present a lot of challenges and play incredibly hard. We have our work cut out for us.”

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West Virginia wideout Isaiah Esdale announced Monday his intention to enter the transfer portal.

West Virginia wide receiver Isaiah Esdale (9) catches a pass against the Texas Tech Red Raiders at Mountaineer Field at Milan Puskar Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ben Queen-USA TODAY Sports

A 5-foot-11, 202-pound redshirt senior, Esdale was a contributor for the Mountaineers each of the last three seasons.

In 10 games this year, he caught 29 passes for 362 yards and one touchdown. Esdale was also the team’s primary punt returner and had a long of 27 yards in West Virginia’s win against Iowa State.

It was against the Cyclones when Esdale suffered a rib injury that caused him to miss losses to Oklahoma State and at Kansas State, before he returned to play the final two regular season games. Esdale combined for only three catches for 19 yards in wins against Texas and at Kansas.

Esdale had a season-high 113 receiving yards and hauled in his only touchdown in a loss to Texas Tech.

A native of Newark, Delaware, Esdale finishes his West Virginia career with 56 receptions for 648 yards and a pair of scores.

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