Part 1: Intro
Ok, bear with us here, because this is gonna get pretty buck wild. What we’re about to do is closer to Pepe Silvia than it is to real football analysis, but let us explain the thought process before you close the window and go read something productive.
So, one of the problems in any kind of predictive analysis is that we often most need analysis when facing an absolute absence of data. Obviously, the wonkier among us always want more data than we get, but what I’m talking about here is not making assumptions off of incomplete data, but coming to conclusions based on a situation where data is completely unavailable. Offensive coordinator transitions - along with pretty much everything else in a Kirby Smart-led program - are the ultimate information black holes. By inference, we know that they exist, but figuring out the shape of them is beyond us until we get the technology to hurl Matthew McConaughey, strapped to a rocket, into the center of the situation. While Todd Monken seems like a pretty sharp guy and a good interview, absent a liberal application of sodium pentothal, we’re not going to get substantive information on what the offense is going to look like until the games are played.
So what is a commentator to do? I mean, sure, Nathan is tempted to go back to his regular quarantine diet of science fiction novels, Dungeons and Dragons, and old PC strategy games, but that would be boring and he’s already logged about 100 hours on Medieval II: Total War since this all kicked off in March. In much the same way he’s dealt with all of 2020 thus far, when Graham first realized the scope of this undertaking he was tempted to head somewhere into the San Juan Mountains and setup camp for a few weeks, not to return before Monken actually calls plays in a Georgia football game. Early snow thwarted this plan.
So instead of descending into an even deeper fugue state, let’s resort to the only tool left in our arsenal: historical precedent. Let’s look not at what Todd Monken plans to do, but at the influences and characters he’s been exposed to throughout his journey to this point in time.
Monken’s first coaching jobs were both under Tom (not Tim) Beck, who was head coach at Grand Valley State from 1989-1990 while Monken was still a GA. In 1991, Beck took the OC job at Notre Dame and brought Monken with him. Beck only lasted for one year- a 9-3 campaign that ended in a Sugar Bowl win over Florida, incidentally- after which everyone involved moved on to greener pastures (In Beck’s case, Illinois). I can’t find anything online about Beck’s coaching philosophy, but I bring him up to point out that Monken overlapped with, and I think was influenced by, another coach while at GVSU: Brian Kelly.
So this is where we get into conjecture. Kelly was the DB/DC coach while Monken was coaching under him, so you could be forgiven for asking what the hell I’m getting at here. However, Kelly has publicly credited Beck for being the root of his coaching tree, and developed the roots of the spread offense he would become famous for starting in 1991 at GVSU when he took over in his mentor’s absence...’
Part II: The Offense
Since the beginning of his tenure, observers have speculated that Kirby Smart likes to insert himself into Georgia’s offensive play calling. How much influence will Smart have on Georgia’s offense in 2020? We don’t know, but that is the biggest variable to consider when trying to predict what shape the UGA offense will take in the coming months. Knowing that Monken left Cleveland due to a lack of autonomy over the Browns strategy and play calling, we don’t think it’s unfair to deduce that he was promised total control of the Georgia offense by Smart when he took the job. If Monken has that control, you can expect the offense to have some certain characteristics.
Since coming aboard in January, Georgia fans and beat reporters have attached many different overarching labels to Monken’s offense. That’s understandable. When studying the Monken attack, you find elements of many different offenses. When you flip on a highlight tape of touchdown plays from one of his teams over the last decade, a minute of that video might lead you to think you’re watching an Air Raid, Pistol, Spread, West Coast or Spread Option offense. It has elements of all of them.
The most accurate way to define what Todd Monken likes to run is to call it a Spread Offense. A lot of misconceptions get attached to that word, so we should clear something up here. A Spread Offense, at least in the way we are going to talk about it, is not about how much or little the ball is run or passed. It is not about how quickly the team gets set and snaps the ball following each play. A Spread is a Spread because of how the players align themselves.
Monken moves his receivers all over the place, using a lot of 10, 11, 01 and 02 personnel. Receivers are often lined up back from the line, and spaced all the way across the field. Monken brings his receivers, tight-ends and h-backs in motion a lot. The alignment and motion is designed to create space and favorable matchups.
This is different than what we have seen from Georgia thus far in the Kirby Smart era. Receivers are rarely spread from sideline to sideline, and spend much more time in tight. However, Monken doesn’t exclusively use this tactic; he also brings his receivers in tight at times and stacks them as well.
If the alignment above looks familiar to you, it’s probably because you watched LSU use it to get Ja’Marr Chase, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Justin Jefferson in space on 3rd-and-4 over and over last season. I’m not saying Georgia is going to turn into 2019 LSU overnight, but it is a staple of the Monken offense.
In addition to the Shotgun, Monken deploys a lot of Pistol formations. Sometimes he uses a single running-back behind the quarterback. Other times he adds a fullback/h-back/sniffer/tight-end to the formation and lines him up at various depths between the quarterback and the offensive line.
Like all of the skill players in the Monken offense, this H-Back can go in motion at anytime. At first glance it often looks like window dressing, and sometimes it is. However in many cases with Monken, if you follow the man in motion you’ll find the key to a play’s success or failure.
All of these features are part of a neatly choreographed dance that is designed to create split-second windows of space. In the past, Monken’s offenses have regularly gone from the end of one play to the snap of the next in less than ten seconds. It’s a blur, and it incorporates elements of many different offensive philosophies.
Part III: The Rise Of A Guru/The Passing Game
Another obvious source to look for when divining Monken’s plan for UGA is Mike Gundy at Oklahoma State. Monken called plays there from 2011-2013 and, using Gundy’s philosophy, led the Cowboys to two of their most prolific offensive seasons in program history.
In 2011 Monken showed up on the lifeless plains of Stillwater, Oklahoma. Stillwater, historically, is a college football dead end. Mike Gundy took over the program in 2005 and built upon the work of Les Miles, turning a traditional also-ran into a competitive program in the years prior to Monken’s arrival. In 2010 OSU went 11-2 and won the Alamo Bowl. With a new offensive coordinator named Todd Monken taking over, most expected a regression.
Instead, the Cowboys unleashed an offensive fury that was revolutionary and shocking even in the points abundant Big 12. Even now, after another decade of sustained success it feels wild to type, but Oklahoma State was a couple plays from a potential national title. They would finish the season with their only conference title since 1976, ranked third in the final polls.
Monken designed his offense around an unknown three-star wide-receiver named Justin Blackmon, a 29 year-old quarterback with an average arm named Brandon Weeden and Joseph Randle, the rare blue-chip prospect who committed to the Cowboys. That three-headed monster would come within a double-overtime loss of a National Championship birth, and Weeden and Blackmon became first-round draft picks for their efforts. Both would wash out of the NFL within a few years, never again able to bottle the lightning that Monken helped them produce in 2011.
Upon 2011 the Church of Monken was built. He immediately became one of the sexiest names in coaching circles, and the term “guru” has often been attached to his name ever since. After one more season in Stillwater, Monken took the head coaching job at Southern Mississippi. He took over a winless program and by his third year the Golden Eagles were nine game winners. In 2015 the Golden Eagles averaged 39.9 points a game, good enough to rank 13th in the FBS, and good enough to make the Tampa Bay Buccaneers want Monken as their offensive coordinator and wide-receivers coach. Despite lacking many of the high-dollar toys that other coordinators in the league had at their disposal, Monken designed and called some of the NFL’s most efficient offenses during his time in Tampa.
After three years with the Buccaneers, Cleveland came calling. Monken was hired by new Browns coach Freddie Kitchens, who has been promoted to the head job after a successful interim stint as the offensive coordinator following the firing of Hue Jackson. Kitchens hired a new OC, but he kept himself as the play-caller. Observers wondered why Monken wasn’t given the reigns to the offense when the Browns struggled to score points to start 2019. Monken was effectively a strategic helper, and he spoke openly with opposing coaches about how dysfunctional the Browns were prior to games. Monken clearly wanted out, and Kirby Smart came calling in mid-January.
If you’ve watched highlights of Monken’s past teams, you’ve probably seen plenty clips of his receivers catching long passes on downfield routes. Dwayne Bowe (LSU 05/06), Justin Blackmon (OSU 2011), Josh Stewart (OSU 2012), Mike Evans (TB 16/17/18), Chris Godwin (TB 2018), Jarvis Landry & Odell Beckham Jr (CLE 2019)- Monken has developed his fair share of big play threats at wide receiver.
There’s not an offensive coordinator in the world that doesn’t want to establish a downfield passing game. What makes Monken different from the vast majority of them is that he successfully puts one together everywhere he goes. The long bomb is not a impulsive thing in the Monken offense.
It is setup by the quick game.
What we have here is a quick little tunnel screen. There’s a lot of these type of quick throws in the Monken passing game. As we mentioned above, Monken uses a lot of motion in his offense. In this play, Monken has the Southern Miss running back run towards the sideline on the field side of the play. To the untrained eye it looks like simple window dressing, but in this play it’s the difference between a short gain and a thirteen yard gain.
Watch the play again, but this time keep your eye on inside linebacker #6 for Western Kentucky. He’s responsible for the running back in motion, and that motion moves him off his spot in the middle of the formation and towards the far harsh mark. This does two important things. The first is that it shows Southern Miss quarterback Nick Mullens that WKU is in some form of a man-to-man defense- that means the screen will work. If WKU is in zone, then he more than likely would throw the ball elsewhere. The second thing it does is give the Southern Miss receiver enough room in the middle of the field to break a long gain.
By putting a man in motion, Monken has made the play easy for his quarterback, and erased the angle that #6 would have had to tackle the ball carrier. It’s smart football, and it shows us that Monken will use play design to manipulate a defense instead of always relying on his skill guys to win one-on-one battles.
Let’s look at another play...
See the guy with the highlight mark under him? You might know him. It’s Ito Smith, currently the backup running back for the Atlanta Falcons. He’s just lined up here in the slot. He was a running back for the 2015 Southern Miss Golden Eagles, but here he is lined up as a wide receiver.
This is another Monken screen play for a nice gain. It functions much like a running play, but it gets Smith the ball on the edge and in space. (Because of these types of sets, it’ll be shocking if James Cook doesn’t have a breakout year in 2020) The Monken screen game also forces WKU defenders to shade towards the outside of the formation. That moves linebackers and safeties out of the box. We’ll discuss in the next section how that helps open up the running game.
The other thing worth noting in these clips is just how far downfield Southern Miss’s offensive lineman are when the screen pass is completed. It might provide a little bit of insight into why Owen Condon has emerged as Georgia’s projected starter at right tackle. Monken wants his lineman a bit quicker, and it’s no coincidence that Condon’s emergence coincides with him losing 2% of his body fat this off-season.
Now let’s look at a play from later in the same game. Here we see some of the genius of Monken’s offense. Monken has the ability to recognize defensive tendencies, and quickly exploit them. By having his offenses get to the line with plenty of time on the play clock, he gives himself enough time to adjust his play call to the look the defense is giving. Here we see him get one over on the WKU defense.
This is a Cover 2 defense, which WKU almost certainly switched into after being burned by the screen game while playing man-to-man coverages early in this 2015 Conference USA Championship Game.
Once the ball is snapped, Monken has his flanker occupy the zone of the defender on the outside, and the slot receiver starts his route looking like he’s going to catch a screen. “Perfect,” the WKU coach thinks. “We’re in a zone, so we have three guys ready to gang tackle him.” Well, no. It’s a wheel route, but it’s also a wheel route designed perfectly to work off of the screen action from earlier in the game. After having seen USM run some successful screens already in this game, the defense is sure to see how the play is developing and think “SCREEN!” after already being burned by similar plays a few times in the first quarter.
This is really, really smart offense, and it’s a perfect example of how Monken creates gains in his offense.
As we mentioned earlier, everything in the Monken offense is about finding space. Monken was a receivers coach first, and he coaches his receivers to run smart routes with subtle nuances to create that space for each other in the passing game.
Alright, so this isn’t complex, but it’s good coaching. It’s basically four verts with a slant, but the beauty of it is that he has the topside flanker run straight towards the safety, who is in man-to-man coverage with the slot receiver. Monken has his quarterback take advantage of the blitzing linebacker, and uses another rub/pick play to get the topside slot receiver open. When you watch the clip, you’ll see that the flanker really didn’t run a streak. He ran the route he needed to run to freeze the safety to allow the slot guy to get open. MONKEN IS REALLY GOOD AT CREATING SPACE.
Looking at what Monken did in the NFL is also interesting, because it’s a whole lot of the same story. Monken’s offenses creating space by putting defenders in awkward spots.
This is just a quick cross over route that jams the defender on #12 Chris Godwin. Godwin takes off on a wheel route from the inside slot position, and the outside slot receiver crosses over on a quick slant/button-hook hybrid route. Boom. There’s a window of open space for Godwin and a nice gain for Tampa Bay.
After being screened, dinked, and dunked to death, defenses eventually realize they need to fill the areas close to the line of scrimmage with more players. At that point, the haymakers start getting thrown.
Goodnight, sweet prince.
Part IV: The Running Game
While it’s not useful to look to Brian Kelly’s recent offenses as a template for what UGA will run in 2020 and beyond, it’s logical to assume that some of the concepts he employed at GVSU, then later on during stops at Central Michigan and Cincinnati, are part of Monken’s coaching DNA. In particular, we think Kelly’s propensity to pull and downblock playside offensive lineman is something we should be looking for going forward from UGA’s offense. To some extent at GVSU, and even more so in his time at Cincinnati, Kelly was known for an aggressive blocking scheme that emphasized pulling lineman. Our expectation is that we’ll see Monken go back to his roots in this respect given that A) UGA, despite losses to transfer and graduation, still has an incredibly athletic O-Line room, and B) Monken’s OL coach and running game coordinator EFFING LOVES to pull lineman.
Matt Luke, despite his other deficiencies as a head coach/fall guy for Ole Miss’ more systemic problems, ran a devastatingly effective run game based around pulling offensive lineman to clear lanes for John Rhys Plumlee (just ask LSU). In Luke’s only game at UGA, the Sugar Bowl matchup against Baylor, Georgia layered a bevy of guard and tight-end pull concepts over the concepts they had been running throughout 2020. In particular, UGA ran the split zone concept successfully by pulling either a tight end or a guard for a “roll” or “kick” block several times.
We have established that Todd Monken runs a pass-first spread offense, but that does not mean Monken isn’t a firm believer in POWER running concepts.
As we discussed earlier, Monken often uses an h-back/sniffer/fullback. Georgia’s 2019 offense was criticized for being an uninventive form of “manball,” but when in the Kirby Smart era have you seen Georgia’s offense use anything resembling a fullback outside of a Goal Line set? Even then, it rarely worked. (We’re still mad about the 7 failed plays from the one with tight end Luke Ford setup as a fullback against Florida 2 years ago.)
Monken understands something about offensive football, and particularly the run game, that his predecessors did not- it’s a numbers game. Instead of running into eight-man boxes with five offensive lineman and a tight end blocking for the running back, Monken looks for space. It’s the same basic idea of what he does in the passing game, create favorable matchups and scheme his skill players into space.
This is a naked toss sweep concept. You saw Georgia run a lot of it in the Sugar Bowl, but with pulling lineman. The running back starts in the Pistol, and then motions to the quarterback’s right hip. It’s a toss play, but the wide receiver fakes like he’s running a pass route, and runs the Nebraska defensive back out of the play instead of blocking him. It’s a subtle difference, but in action it creates more space and less bodies on the outside of the play. The h-back misses his block, but because of the play design the running back is still in a one-on-one situation instead of being swarmed by a gang of tacklers. He lowers his shoulder and wins the matchup. It’s powerful, but it’s also a finesse play, and it requires one or two guys to do their job well in order to make the play successful instead of everyone on the offensive unit.
We talked earlier in the passing game section about how Monken’s quick screen game requires his offensive lineman to be athletic. Getting to the second level and blocking linebackers is often part of the play design in the Monken running game. Instead of double teaming the 3-man front, Monken’s guys get up field in a hurry.
The guard gets upfield and gets a seal on the linebacker. Because he does, Ito Smith has nothing but space between the hash and the sideline. Upon his arrival in Athens, Kirby Smart made bulking up the offensive and defensive lines his number one priority. Don’t get me wrong, Georgia has recruited plenty of incredible athletes along the line in the Smart era, but what Monken will ask them to do is going to be different than what they had to do under Jim Chaney and James Coley.
Here we have a true FULL HOUSE (!!!) formation out of the Pistol. Every Southern Miss offensive lineman jumps off the snap and blocks down the line towards the field. The two h-backs lined up next to the quarterback block the left outside linebacker and middle linebacker. This leaves a mass of bodies in the middle of the field, and a tight hole for Smith to work with. This is as Power as power running games can get. There are some factions of the Georgia fanbase who have worried that the Bulldogs will lack physicality in the running game in 2020. Those people can put their worries to rest, I don’t think we are going to see RUN THE DAMN BALL MONKEN become a thing.
On this play we again have all of the lineman blocking down the line, and the slot receiver is going to come in motion towards the field. The H-Back heads to the edge at the snap, and creates a perfect seal for Smith. He gets a block on the MLB who is crashing towards the play and trying to set the edge. It’s goodnight, Ruston from there and Ito heads up the field.
Last year we saw D’Andre Swift in lots of situations where he had to make a defender miss before getting to the line of scrimmage. We can only speculate why James Coley shunned the idea of using lead blockers in the running game, perhaps he thought that the heralded Georgia offensive line didn’t need the help. Either way, with tight formations and the inability to stretch the field with the pass in many games, Georgia’s offense struggled to create space for Swift to run in the open field. Monken has shown in the past that he has plenty of ways to create holes for his running backs.
This is a simple zone-read play, and if you watch a college football game in the year 2020, you’re likely to see some variation of it dozens of times. James Coley called it on a whopping 19.2% of downs in 2019. For it to be effective, the quarterback has to keep the defense honest. If he doesn’t, the weak-side defensive end will crash into the backfield and blow up the play over and over. We saw that happen to Georgia often in 2019. Mullens keeping this ball is an encouraging sign for Georgia’s 2020 offense. It means that Monken knows what he has to do to keep a defense honest, and he will make his quarterback keep the ball in order to keep lanes open for his running backs. This will make a crucial difference in the effectiveness of the Georgia running game.
Okay, so we are aware that this isn’t a running play. We realize it’s a screen, but it also functions as a running play in the Monken offense. Once again the h-back is a key to the play. The h-back is going to come in motion before the snap, and the defense is probably thinking a run play is coming.
This is where the Monken system really flourishes- the same actions that exist on run plays also exist on screens and downfield passes. It’s hell on linebackers and defensive backs, and it forces them into quick decisions that are often wrong.
So back to the above play, the h-back #22 is going to get a block on the defender who is covering the outside receiver, #5 for Southern Miss. The slot receiver, #15, is going to run upfield and find the safety. It’s easy work for the offense that’s all sprung off of the h-back’s motion, which freezes the Louisiana Tech linebackers for just a second. That second is all it takes for #5 to get a step upfield before the defense can get an angle on him.
Everything Monken does works off of itself, and the way passes and runs look before the snap are often identical. Monken’s offense has no tells, and it makes it hard to know when he’s bluffing.
While these changes, when applied to UGA’s blocking schemes, may seem trivial, they aren’t just cosmetic. These concepts take advantage of UGA’s athleticism up front, and can lead to some truly incredible holes for skill players to exploit.
Part V: What does any of this mean?
By nature, neither of us are prone to view the world through Dawg-colored glasses. Nathan is a deeply committed sports pessimist, and while we can’t prove that Graham is actually @UGANihilist, we also can’t disprove it. We say all of that to emphasize the seriousness with which we type the following: Todd Monken is a good enough coordinator that, if Georgia’s offense sputters in 2020, it won’t be because of his play-calling.
Depending on your point of view, that sentiment may either seem so obvious as to be droll, or revolutionary enough to deserve condemnation. Regardless of your perspective, it’s an important one. While most advanced analytics people will tell you - rightly - that you have to have an excellent offense to win the Natty in this day in age, UGA doesn’t need to be Oklahoma offensively this year to make it to the CFP. Given that (and this is probably a poor assumption on our part) the goal of the program is to have a shot at a title every year, we can find no evidence that Todd Monken as both an offensive innovator and a game-day coach will in any way prevent UGA from having that chance, and that’s a change for the program. His scheme is inventive, clever, and at times quite daring. He’s an expert in the use of formation and motion, and incredibly sensitive to the tendencies these elements cause in opposing defenses, and how to exploit them. He’s coached unheralded players to the heights of college football, and developed stars into superstars. The process of researching and writing this piece has left us with, if not confidence, then excitement and cautious optimism.
Does all of this mean that UGA is going to score 30 points a game this year? No. Does it mean that the offense will never cost the Dawgs a game? Absolutely not. What it means, so far as we can determine, is that Kirby Smart made a measured, informed decision whose only result can be the complete retooling of UGA’s offensive philosophy. Putting aside Smart’s desire to establish the run (something we hope we proved that Monken can do effectively), there can be no other result to Monken’s addition to UGA’s staff. His background, coaching tree, and philosophy are too divergent from those previous Bulldog offensive coordinators to reasonably expect any other result.
This philosophical shift may work. It may not. It will probably be frustrating at times. It is likely to be brilliant at others, but ultimately, we now believe that this decision is of a piece with Kirby Smart’s core beliefs in how a program should be run- the more talent one brings in, the more likely one is to find success. While nothing is certain, we find no evidence to suggest that Todd Monken will be anything less than a significant upgrade in talent from his predecessors.
In his previous stops, Monken was often at a talent disadvantage. He designed a system based on timing and physics. Simply put, these forces dictate that defenders lack the ability to run at full speed when another human being crosses their path. By teaching his skill position players how to work for each other, he created space for his offense even when he didn’t have better athletes than the team across the field.
Last season. Georgia’s offense often relied on its players to simply be faster or stronger than the man covering them in order to score points. It worked in all but a couple of games. On most Saturday’s, they could win based on genetics alone. On the Satruday’s they couldn’t we saw the flaws in UGA’s program take human form. Todd Monken has delivered success at every stop, while never having an overwhelming talent advantage over the average defense he faces. Entering this year, Monken has been blessed with an arsenal full of elite weapons. Some of them have been misused in the past, others have been neglected entirely. It’s difficult to see that neglect continuing.
Monken sees a defense shading towards a receiver, and knows that an open man must exist because of it. He runs the same screen for a first-down three times in a quarter, and knows that a bias has been conditioned into the brain of the opposing linebacker. Instead of getting greedy with the screen, he uses the linebacker’s own instincts as a weapon against him. The linebacker reacts to a fake, and the running back has blasted through the hole and into the second level before he’s had time to realize his error.
In Monken, the Georgia offense has a choreographer who is a master of space and time; two things that are undefeated versus even the most transcendent of athletes. He realizes that balance is the ultimate weapon.
It will be fascinating to see what he does in 2020 with a roster full of blue-chip talent.
Graham Coffey and Nathan Lawrence spent much of the summer studying Todd Monken on their show The Battle Hymnal. This a summation of that work. For more on what to expect from Georgia in 2020, check out the episodes attached below. You can follow Graham on Twitter @DawgOutWest, Nathan @NathanJLawerence and the show @TheBattleHymnal and @ChapelBellCurve. They will be breaking down film and doing deep dives on all things UGA throughout the season. Their show airs live on Periscope and Twitter, and is posted on this site following each recording. If you’ve made it this far, thank you.
The Alignment, Tactics and Philosophy of the Todd Monken Offense
The Battle Hymnal 9/4/20 Talkin' Monken https://t.co/O4S90cRroY— Chapel Bell Curve (@ChapelBellCurve) September 4, 2020
Todd Monken’s Rushing Attack
The Battle Hymnal 9/4/20 Talkin' Monken https://t.co/taAnTdkZ8Y— Chapel Bell Curve (@ChapelBellCurve) September 11, 2020
Todd Monken’s Tactics Along The Offensive Line
Chapel Bell Curve - live via https://t.co/MPy4Vyfzpr https://t.co/5FINLipIsi— Chapel Bell Curve (@ChapelBellCurve) August 21, 2020