Opinion: New offensive coordinator Todd Monken could provide boost for UGA running game
Georgia fell short of its goals in 2019. The Bulldogs were forced to settle with being the SEC runner-up again after losing the conference championship game to LSU, and once again, UGA travelled to New Orleans for the Sugar Bowl while wishing it was in the College Football Playoff.
A sputtering offense was the biggest reason why.
UGA was 46th in the country in average yards per play last season (6.08) after having been seventh in that category in 2018 while averaging 7.05 yards per play.
Inexperience at wide receiver seemingly explains part of the problem, and the rest of the blame appeared to fall at the feet of offensive coordinator James Coley.
“They didn’t necessarily have the receiver play they had the past two years… they weren’t able to get the ball downfield in this offense, and I think eventually it caught up with them,” ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit recently told DawgNation. “I think they also re-evaluated their offensive coordinator. They’re going in a different direction, which I think maybe will help them moving forward.”
Herbstreit’s obviously referring to new offensive coordinator Todd Monken — the coach hired to replace Coley, and the coach whose arrival comes coupled with curiosity given that he appears to represent a departure from the philosophy that has defined the first four years of the Kirby Smart era.
UGA has been a run-heavy offense under Smart, but Monken has connections to the so-called “Air Raid” — which, as the name suggests, promotes a more prolific passing attack.
“Really what I took away from (the Air Raid) was being able to throw to win,’’ Monken said after being hired by the Cleveland Browns last year. “That really to me was the Air Raid. You had a certain amount of run game, you ran a lot of the same concepts and you could throw to win. That was really it. Like any offense, it works a lot better if you have good players.”
It’s easy to understand why Smart would want to upgrade UGA’s passing attack. The Bulldogs were 63rd in the country last season in passing yards per attempt (7.5) and 72nd in passing yards per game (223).
However, Monken’s impact could potentially be measured by more than just an improved passing game.
For instance, the reigning national champions, LSU, also underwent a strategic overhaul on offense last season.
LSU hired Joe Brady — a former New Orleans Saints staffer — as passing game coordinator. Under Brady’s direction, quarterback Joe Burrow nearly doubled his passing yards from the previous season (from 2,894 yards in 2018 to 5,671 last season), and more than tripled his passing touchdowns (from 16 to 60).
Burrow became the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft last month, and Brady was hired as offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers.
Yet it wasn’t just the passing attack that Brady seemed to upgrade. LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire also took a major statistical leap.
Edwards-Helaire rushed for 658 yards in 2018 while averaging 4.5 yards per carry. However, last season, he rushed for 1,414 yards on 6.6 yards per carry. Year over year, he also went from seven rushing touchdowns to 16, and from 96 to 453 receiving yards.
It’s easy to assume that the more wide open attack led by Burrow and coached by Brady provided Edwards-Helaire with more room to run and a chance to thrive.
Edwards-Helaire was rewarded for his success when the Kansas City Chiefs selected him with the final pick of the first round.
Monken’s philosophy might provide a similar opportunity for UGA’s running backs this season.
His affinity for the passing game doesn’t mean he’ll disregard running backs. He’ll still seek balance, but Monken’s definition of that word might be a bit different than what UGA fans have grown accustomed to under Smart.
“I think balance is multiple skill players touching the football,” Monken said last year. “To me, it’s not always just ‘run-pass,’ it’s do you have enough skill players where they can touch the football?
“Is running the football important? Sure, because in order to win you’ve got to be explosive and not turn the ball over. How do you become explosive? [You’ve got to have] space players and throwing it over [the defense’s] head or throwing intermediate pocket [routes], and running the football adds to that.”
Monken’s words can be interpreted to mean that running backs benefit from a passing game that keeps defenses guessing, and unfortunately for UGA last season, the opposite was true.
The Bulldogs’ passing struggles negatively impacted the once-dominant rush offense.
UGA ran for 2,591 yards last season, down from 3,343 in 2018. The Bulldogs also dropped from 5.9 yards per carry to 4.94, and from 30 rushing touchdowns to 21.
Defenses focused on stopping UGA’s running backs, and the Bulldogs simply couldn’t offer a counterpunch — a fact that eventually frustrated running back D’andre Swift badly enough that he spoke out after a 19-13 win vs. Texas A&M.
“We can’t ask the defense to throw a shutout every game,” Swift said. “Offensively we’ve got to get better… I can’t put it on one person. I can’t put it on two. We’ve got to come together and be focused as a unit and sustain drives.”
This season, UGA should have a better chance of sustaining those failed drives from a year ago. Monken comes to the Bulldogs with impressive accolades — including producing the NFL’s top passing attack as offensive coordinator in Tampa Bay in 2018.
That expertise in creative successful passing offenses should not only benefit new quarterback Jamie Newman, but the crowded stable of UGA running backs as well.
“I think that whole running back room is going to have a great year,” Swift recently predicted of the backs attempting to fill his shoes this season. “They’re going to be successful — from Kenny McIntosh, to Zamir [White], to James [Cook], even the young one that came in, Kendall Milton, I think they’re all going to have great careers at Georgia.”
Undoubtedly, each back’s chances of success are increased by being part of an offense that utilizes all its available playmakers, and the end result could mean more than just numbers on a stat sheet. It could also mean pairing an explosive — and balanced — offense with what is expected to be one of the nation’s most dominant defenses. A coupling that might propel the Bulldogs back into the College Football Playoff.
That’s what Monken is tasked with bringing the Bulldogs, and fans are eager to see the results.