Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken is a QB whisperer, but his work with RBs deserves mention, too
If one were to dig into the background of Georgia offensive coordinator Todd Monken, his work with quarterbacks would come to the forefront.
The most recent example, of course, is Nick Mullens. The Hoover, Alabama, product — a signal-caller not at famed Hoover High, but at the smaller, less famous Spain Park — was planning to take the 20-minute trip up Interstate 65 and attend UAB; it was a visit to Hattiesburg and some facetime with the incoming head coach just before 2013 National Signing Day that changed the youngster’s mind.
You know the rest of the story: Monken resurrected one of the worst programs in the country and Mullens left Southern Miss having rewritten the record books.
Mullens is far from the only Monken quarterback disciple. He did oversee Oklahoma State’s offense, after all, which featured the prolific Brandon Weeden.
But that’s only half of the tale.
Take Southern Miss running back Jalen Richard. His freshman year ended without him even winning a game, and despite Monken taking the reins after a disastrous one-and-out 2012 under Ellis Johnson, the Golden Eagles started winless in 2013 before a blowout win over UAB on the last day of the season, ending a 23-game losing streak that spanned 2 years.
Richard didn’t play in that game. He’d go on to play in plenty more wins, though.
Monken slowly returned Southern Miss to the winning form it enjoyed under Larry Fedora. The capstone was 2015 when it went 9-5, finishing 13th in the country in points scored, scoring 28 or more 12 times. And while Mullens will get most of the accolades, Richard, who scored 14 touchdowns on the ground and came 2 yards shy of 1,100 yards rushing, deserves as much credit.
Richard was just half of a lethal ball-carrying tandem.
Ito Smith, a sophomore on that 2015 team, was actually the leading rusher a season prior as a true freshman, albeit with just 536 yards on 136 carries. He took a massive step forward the next year, running 171 times for 1,128 yards and 10 touchdowns. Smith reached greater heights under Monken’s replacement, Jay Hopson, but the former laid the groundwork for a successful college career and, later, a spot on the Atlanta Falcons roster.
Forget quarterbacks. It seems as if Monken knows a thing or two about developing running backs, too, doesn’t it?
It’s understandable that that part of the 54-year-old’s résumé doesn’t get a lot of play. The quarterback is the headliner, the leader, the player everyone rallies behind. Look at the past 20 years and you can count on one hand how many running backs have won the Heisman Trophy.
And I’ll admit that I wasn’t fully aware of Monken’s scope of work. I always thought of him as the man who molded Mullens from lightly-recruited 2-star high school player to the doorstep of 12,000 career passing yards in college and spot in the NFL. But his success at the FBS level with running backs speaks for itself, if to mention nothing of what he’s done for offenses as a whole.
“What he loves doing is trying to do each individual job better than the next guy,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said after a recent practice. “Can we do one thing? Can we run a curl better than the other team can run a curl? Can we run a dig route better than the other team can run a dig route? Can we coach those things better than the other team?”
Richard and Smith are only 2 examples. Joseph Randle, a 2-time All-Big 12 running back with Oklahoma State in 2011 and 2012 before a brief NFL career, thrived under the tutelage of Monken as a top 20 back in rushing yards as a junior. John Simon enjoyed success at Louisiana Tech as a running back before he turned into one of the primary targets in the receiving game in 2000 as a talented multi-purpose athlete. A catalyst in that? Monken, who coached running backs and receivers that year before shifting to just wide receivers the next year.
That’s certainly good news for Georgia’s running back corps.
For the amount of grief that former offensive coordinator James Coley received, he did a decent job incorporating the RBs into the receiving game. D’Andre Swift made 24 catches during his junior year — 4th on the team — while his 32 catches as a sophomore in 2018 put him 3rd among Bulldogs players.
That was nowhere close to Smith’s 2015 season at Southern Miss, when he caught 49 passes out of the backfield.
And that same philosophy at Southern Miss and previous stops will guide Monken in Athens, as he has a blank canvas to work with as he takes charge of the Georgia offense. (Monken no doubt learned a wrinkle or two while serving as an OC in the NFL the previous 4 years, too. Former Dawg Nick Chubb ran for 1,494 yards and made the Pro Bowl in Monken’s offense last year with the Cleveland Browns.)
Gone is Swift, who, while a talented ball carrier, was far from the same level as predecessors Chubb, Todd Gurley or Sony Michel. Smart admitted Georgia’s struggles at developing a consistent running attack in 2019. The same Swift who reached into the triple digits one week would be in the 70s or 80s the next. Change-of-pace back Brian Herrien is gone, as well. But with an RB room that includes Zamir White, James Cook, Kenny McIntosh and promising freshman Kendall Milton, there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic that Monken will make good on this new opportunity to make his mark.
And if that’s an area that sees improvement from a year ago, it will add an extra dimension to the offense that it needs to reach its ultimate goals.