Kirby Smart made three key offseason moves to address the one weakness separating the Dawgs from national title contention
Once the dust had settled on Georgia’s 2019 season, fans and beat writers were left wondering if Kirby Smart could see what was patently obvious to them.
Despite leading the nation in scoring defense at 12.6 points per game, the Bulldogs engaged in close game after close game, especially down the stretch. It speaks to the culture of the program that they were able to win 12 of 14 games. But they should have been better, right?
It was clear the offense was holding the team back, and it wasn’t only one person or area. Quarterback Jake Fromm just wasn’t the same player as he had been the previous two seasons. It was his first year working under James Coley as his sole offensive coordinator, and despite having a ton of freedom at the line of scrimmage, the easy throws for Fromm were few and far between.
A portion of the blame may lie with Coley or Fromm, but you also have to factor in the loss of four pass-catchers to the 2019 NFL Draft and another to dismissal in the offseason. The Bulldogs’ leading returning receiver in 2019, Tyler Simmons, had caught just nine balls the previous season.
The run game disappointed, as a vaunted offensive line struggled to move teams at the point of attack and was plagued by blown assignments and mistakes. The pass protection was great, but the running backs often had to create on their own. D’Andre Swift bested his rushing total from 2018, but Brian Herrien couldn’t come anywhere close to Elijah Holyfield’s production from the previous year.
Smart saw that changes were needed, and the buck stopped with Coley. The decision to replace Coley with Todd Monken wasn’t the first one in a chronological sense, but it was the most important. Monken is coming off a four-year stint in the NFL, three with Tampa Bay and one with Cleveland, where he coached some of the game’s most exciting players.
He worked with Chris Godwin, Mike Evans and Jameis Winston while with the Buccaneers. The Browns had a disappointing 2019 season, but Monken had the opportunity to coach Baker Mayfield, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and UGA legend Nick Chubb. He didn’t call the plays in Cleveland, but under Monken’s direction, Tampa was third in the NFL in total offense in 2018 after finishing ninth in that category the year before.
Whether or not UGA’s offense will look dramatically different remains to be seen, but Monken is quite different from a philosophical standpoint from what Bulldog fans have experienced the past three seasons. Jim Chaney, who held the offensive coordinator post for three years, was all about ground and pound. Who could blame him? He coached Chubb to a pair of 1,000-yard seasons, and Sony Michel, Swift and Holyfield each hit that mark once with Chaney calling the plays. Coley took over for one season and seemed to want more balance, but the Bulldogs failed to achieve it.
Smart’s decision to move on should reveal his opinion on the matter.
Monken has looked for balance during his career, but if he favors one offensive element over the other, it’s the passing game. His offense contains influences from the air raid scheme. He’ll throw to set up the run if necessary, and he’ll throw to win. In his previous stop as an offensive coordinator at a Power 5 program, at Oklahoma State in 2011 and 2012, his offenses ranked in the top 10 nationally in passing yards per game.
In 2011, the Cowboys ranked No. 2 in that category, piling up 387.2 yards per contest with Brandon Weeden under center. They slipped to seventh in 2012 with a still-impressive 331 yards per game despite having three quarterbacks with more than 100 attempts on the year.
Monken went from Stillwater to Southern Miss, where he inherited a team that had gone winless the year before he arrived. By his third year, the Golden Eagles were in the Heart of Dallas Bowl, finishing with a 9–5 record behind a 4,000-yard passer (Nick Mullens), a 1,300-yard receiver (Michael Thomas), and two 1,000-yard rushers (Jalen Richard and Ito Smith).
Georgia is hoping for similar results and, more specifically, more explosive plays. The Bulldogs finished 70th nationally in scrimmage plays of 20 yards or more with just 58 in 14 games, and Monken will try to remedy that with graduate transfer Jamie Newman or former USC signal-caller JT Daniels at quarterback.
Newman made the decision to transfer from Wake Forest on December 31, 2019, and less than two weeks later, he had made it known that he was headed to Georgia. The spot opened up when Fromm declared early for the 2020 NFL Draft, and to replace him, the Bulldogs are getting a much different player.
Newman, a 6'4", 230-pound run-pass threat, gives the Bulldogs something they have never had — a quarterback who can thrive in the power run game. He didn’t put up video game numbers on the ground at Wake Forest, but he was incredibly effective with the designed quarterback run, amassing 575 yards and six touchdowns on 180 carries last season. In 16 career starts, he has racked up 10 touchdowns on the ground, and he’s adept through the air as well, piling up 2,868 yards, 26 touchdowns and 11 interceptions on 61 percent passing last season.
He enrolled at UGA in the spring, adding intrigue to the Bulldogs’ annual G-Day spring scrimmage, but that was cancelled due to the coronavirus. Newman and Monken will have to get on the same page quickly once practices resume.
But neither Monken nor Newman initiated Smart’s attempt to revamp the Bulldog offense. You see, that started on the first day of the NCAA’s early signing period, when the Bulldogs reeled in three wideouts who were rated as top-100 overall players in the 247Sports Composite. Long-time pledge Marcus Rosemy inked with the Bulldogs, and speedy pass catcher Arian Smith chose UGA over Alabama, Clemson and Florida. Then, Smart and company flipped Jermaine Burton from LSU. That’s right. Burton chose to play at UGA over the program that had just fielded one of the most potent offenses in college football history in 2019.
That was where the makeover started. Whether receiver was Georgia’s biggest problem or not, the early signing period was when the first domino fell.
Smart’s three key moves weren’t necessarily interconnected, but together, they’ll dictate 2020’s outcome.