Kirby Smart’s hiring of new offensive coordinator Todd Monken this week has sparked Dawgs fans’ dreams of a more wide-open, explosive attack — especially coming on the heels of dual-threat quarterback Jamie Newman enrolling at UGA.
Add in the stellar Sugar Bowl showings of George Pickens and Zamir “Zeus” White, and the loss of all those offensive starters doesn’t look quite as catastrophic.
The move to bring in Monken, who is widely expected to call the plays and coach the quarterbacks (though Smart hasn’t yet confirmed those specifics) eased the fears of the contingent of Bulldog Nation that thought the Georgia head coach was too stodgy in his offensive outlook to move away from the run-first philosophy that someone dubbed “man-ball.”
As one friend put it this week, “It’s good that Kirby is willing to shake things up. This sounds like much more than just a tweak.”
Obviously, Smart wasn’t happy with how the offense fared this past season: finishing 49th in the nation in points scored — and outside the College Football Playoff — while the four teams that made the pigskin version of the Big Dance all ranked in the Top 10 in scoring.
It’s a good sign that Smart didn’t waste much time. He apparently concluded that he didn’t have the right guy calling the signals in first-year solo coordinator James Coley, who nevertheless will stay with the team as assistant head coach (and, hopefully, ace offensive recruiter).
Some fans and college football observers had speculated during this past season that Coley’s play-calling was being restrained by Smart’s conservative (a kinder word than “outdated”) offensive philosophy and preference for wearing down opponents with a punishing running game. But, the hiring of Monken in the wake of signing a dual-threat graduate-transfer quarterback would seem to belie that notion.
Either that, or Smart’s desire to win has brought about a change of heart.
Whatever the reason, it’s a welcome development.
Of course, as the UGA head coach pointed out after the loss to LSU in the SEC Championship Game, Georgia already had many of the same plays in its playbook as the unstoppable Tigers, but the Dawgs didn’t have the same level of players to run them, after losing most of their receiving talent from the previous year and suffering a couple of key injuries.
Looking ahead, it’s true that, with Georgia having to replace most of its starting offensive line, top two running backs, top two tight ends and two of its best remaining receivers, Monken is pretty much looking at a complete rebuild.
However, the recent recruiting classes mean there’s a lot of young talent ready to be the “next man up,” and bowl sensation Pickens looks primed to become a major offensive weapon — assuming he matures and learns to keep his emotions in check.
As for White, at this point I wouldn’t rank him with the likes of Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb or Sony Michel, but he seemed to be gaining strength as a running threat as the season progressed.
And, if you’re one of those run-the-damn-ball fans who worries about the hiring an offensive coordinator whose past offenses hewed more toward the Air Raid side of the game than running it down the throat, keep in mind that running backs can flourish in a wide-open passing attack. Just look at LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who ranked No. 2 among SEC rushers last season (Georgia’s D’andre Swift was No. 5), despite the Tigers’ throw-first mentality and LSU’s Joe Burrow topping the conference passing stats.
Last season, the Georgia offense generally was lackluster (with the Florida game being a notable exception). The UGA coaching staff’s lack of confidence in its young receiving talent, which apparently precluded opening up that playbook Smart referenced, too often resulted in the Dawgs’ big offensive line bunched up in a tight formation resembling a rugby scrum, as the running backs tried mostly in vain to find an opening against defenses that had loaded 8 men in the box because they didn’t respect UGA’s passing game.
In that regard, the outlook for 2020 is uncertain, but ultimately positive.
When Smart did allow himself to criticize the Dawgs’ offense this past season, he mostly lamented Georgia’s inability to get the ball to playmakers out in space and the team’s lack of “explosive” plays.
Monken appears to be just what Georgia needs, in that he’s known for a much more aggressive downfield passing game. He indicated as much in his introductory news conference when he was hired in Tampa in 2016.
“The bottom line is how can you be explosive?” he said. “I’ve always thought, we don’t need more 5-yard plays. Who needs more 5-yard plays? How can we be explosive? That’s what the game is about, man. Big plays. So how do we not figure out ways to get explosive plays? That’s fun.”
That mindset, combined with Wake Forest transfer Newman’s ability to make deep throws, and his dangerous running ability (which defenses will have to respect), means the 2020 Dawgs offense looks likely to be much more of a downfield threat.
As ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit tweeted: “Between Monken’s approach and QB Jamie Newman coming over from WF — exactly what Kirby and the Dawgs Offense needed.”
And, let’s be clear, Monken doesn’t have to try and re-create his run-and-shoot offense from his time at Oklahoma State. Just a more varied playbook would help a lot.
But, whether it winds up being “Air Georgia” or not, the Dawgs’ offense needs to be less predictable.
Combine a more wide-open offense with a downfield passing threat, and what promises to be one of the nation’s best defenses (nine of 11 starters return from a unit that led the nation in scoring defense and run defense and finished third in total defense), and Georgia could be a playoff contender again this coming season.
That is, if they can get past a daunting schedule that sees the Dawgs traveling to Tuscaloosa in Week 3. Unfortunately, Georgia has a much tougher draw in SEC West opponents than division rival Florida, whom many have dubbed as the favorite in the East. While the Dawgs must play Bama early and, as always, have Auburn, the Gators will face a much-diminished LSU (whose losses include its passing guru, defensive coordinator, Heisman-winning QB, top tailback and top receiver) and also-ran Ole Miss.
If Georgia loses to Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, chances are they’ll have to run the table to win the SEC East and return to the conference championship game for a fourth consecutive year.
In the past, anywhere in the Top 10 would have been considered a successful season in a rebuilding year, but Georgia now falls into that group of elite-wannabes for whom nothing short of the playoff will do. Once you’ve been to the national championship game, the only way to satisfy your fan base is to win it.
Having given Bulldog Nation a taste of that kind of almost-glory early in his tenure, Smart now faces high (perhaps unrealistic) expectations on a yearly basis. The fact that he’s shown himself willing to make a major change to improve his team’s chances is an encouraging sign that he won’t let Dawgs fans down.