Should Notre Dame Consider Hiring Todd Monken On Offense?
Notre Dame has a roster that should allow it to develop into one of the nation’s elite offenses over the next few seasons, assuming head coach Brian Kelly makes a strong hire at offensive coordinator.
One name that is being discussed is former Penn State offensive coordinator and Mississippi State head coach Joe Moorhead, who I already broke down.
There is another name that has been floated, and that is former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Oklahoma State offensive coordinator, and Southern Miss head coach Todd Monken.
Let’s take a look at Monken’s resume and discuss whether or not he should be considered for the open offensive coordinator position.
THE MONKEN RESUME
Both Notre Dame and Kelly have some familiarity with Monken. The Illinois native got his coaching start at Grand Valley State (1989-90). The defensive coordinator for that Laker team was Brian Kelly, who became the head coach at GVSU in 1991.
His next step was as a graduate assistant coach at Notre Dame (1991-92), where he worked for a guy named Lou Holtz. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?
Over the next five seasons (1993-97) Monken coached on both sides of the ball at Eastern Michigan, working with wide receivers and defensive backs. He was named the offensive coordinator for the Eagles the next two seasons before moving on to Louisiana Tech (2000-01), where he coached running backs and wide receivers.
Les Miles hired Monken to coach wide receivers and coordinate the pass game for Oklahoma State (2002-04), and Monken had the same role at LSU (2005-06) under Miles before being named the wide receivers coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars (2007-10).
In Monken's final game coordinating the LSU pass attack the Tigers racked up 332 passing yards on 21 of 34 attempts in a 41-14 Sugar Bowl victory over Notre Dame.
Monken returned to college in 2011 when he was tasked with running the Oklahoma State offense. The Cowboys had the best two-year stretch of offense of the Mike Gundy era, and it's not even close.
What is most impressive about his stint at Oklahoma State is what he did in his second season. The Cowboys went 12-1 in 2011 (his first season), averaging 48.7 points per game and 549.8 yards per game and 7.24 yards per play. But Monken inherited a very good offense that had a pair of eventual first-round NFL Draft picks in quarterback Brandon Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon.
Both Weeden and Blackmon were in the NFL in 2012, but Oklahoma State didn’t miss a beat, averaging 45.7 points per game, 547.0 yards per game and 7.01 yards per play.
Not only was Monken able to develop an elite offense despite losing Weeden and Blackmon, he did it with an offense that looked much different. Oklahoma State averaged 387.2 passing yards per game and just 162.6 rushing yards per game (5.39 per attempt) in 2011, but the year after his stars left the Cowboys averaged 331.7 passing yards per game, but its rushing average jumped up to 215.3 yards per game (5.39 yards per attempt).
That’s the sign of a good coach, and the sign of a coach that will build around the talent and strengths of his team.
Monken left Oklahoma State to become the head coach at Southern Miss (2013-15), a program that went 0-12 and averaged just 19.7 points and 323.0 yards per game the year prior to his arrival. By his third season, Southern Miss won nine games and won the Conference USA West title while averaging 39.9 points and 509.5 yards per game.
In 2015, the Southern Miss offense averaged 415.3 yards of offense and 5.82 yards per play against three Power 5 opponents (Mississippi State, Nebraska, Washington). That is better than the 403.1 yards per game and 5.68 yards per play that Notre Dame averaged against Power 5 opponents in 2019.
Monken left to become the offensive coordinator for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2016-18). The Buccaneers led the NFL in passing yards per game in 2018 and were fourth in 2017. They ranked third and ninth in total offense the last two seasons.
THE MONKEN OFFENSE
Monken is not a traditional “Air Raid” coach, at least not in the sense most think when they hear that phrase. If you watch his offense at Oklahoma State or Southern Miss it bears almost no resemblance to what you’ll see from Mike Leach and his disciples.
Monken runs more of a spread offense that is built around throwing the football, but his offense is more balanced. While his offenses always lean heavy on the pass, the ability to be effective running and throwing the football is what makes them so explosive. The threat of the run also makes his pass offense more dynamic.
What I like most about Monken’s offense is that he will attack the entire field with the throwing game. His Oklahoma State offense attacked down the field quite a bit, but on every snap you had to be prepared to defend every zone, short to deep, inside and outside. Monken will attack with vertical stretch concepts, horizontal stretch concepts and he’ll run some triangle concepts that are a big part of the West Coast offense.
Monken also attacks with the play-action and screen game. His screen game attacks inside and outside, and will go to backs and receivers. He’ll get his running backs the football many ways. In 2011-12 his top back was Joseph Randle, who caught 71 passes in two seasons under Monken. In 2015 at Southern Miss, his top two backs combined for 79 caches and 799 yards.
The RPO game is also a key part of the Monken offense.
From a run game standpoint there isn’t much diversity in Monken’s system. It is made up mostly of inside zone, mid-zone and outside zone concepts. There was a little read zone in certain seasons, but it was minimal.
Where you see the diversity in his run game is with personnel and the looks they show defenses. The low number of run concepts means his line is expected to execute at a very high level, which would fit at Notre Dame and its talented personnel up front. Monken will then show defenses a wide variety of personnel. In games I’ve broken down you’ll see him go with three or four receivers on one snap and spread the field and on the very next play he’s got two tight ends in the game.
Monken also used a lot of motions and shifts to aid the run game. When you have to defend a pass-first offense that will attack down the field just as much as it will hit you with a screen the defense gets very stressed on the perimeter. The way Monken uses that to his advantage to set up the run game is highly effective. He will also use his second back and second tight end to lead block in the run game.
Monken’s college offenses mix up their tempo, but they can easily go fast in normal game situations, which adds to their explosiveness and also allows them to play well from behind. Unlike other tempo teams, it can easily slow down and play with a lead if needed.
There are a number of reasons why Kelly should give Monken a long look as his next offensive coordinator.
1. Track record speaks for itself — In his last five seasons calling an offense in college, Monken has led a unit that averaged 48.7, 45.7 and 39.9 points per game, and 549.8, 547.0 and 509.5 yards per game. He knows how to build an elite offense, whether it’s taking over a poor unit and turning it around in a short period (Southern Miss) or taking a really good offense and making it elite (Oklahoma State).
2. Pass-first offense fits what Kelly wants — Kelly talks about wanting to run the ball, and to a degree I think that is true, but the reality is he has long shown a preference for being a pass-oriented offense that is good enough on the ground to make teams respect that part of the game. That is not a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just how Kelly wants it to be. Monken has a diverse, explosive and efficient pass attack that would fit the personnel that Notre Dame has on the roster and fits what Kelly likes in an offense.
Monken’s offense can’t work without wideout and tight ends that are able to stretch the field and do damage after the catch. With players like Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III, Kevin Austin, Kendall Abdur-Rahman, Jordan Johnson and Xavier Watts at wide receiver and Tommy Tremble, George Takacs, Michael Mayer and Kevin Bauman at tight end there is certainly the talent on campus to suit the offense Monken employs.
3. Respects the run game — With Monken (and Moorhead), you have a coach who, in college, showed himself to be a pass-oriented coordinator who respects the need to have an effective ground attack. He has shown a willingness to establish the ground game in big games as well, especially when he feels his line has an advantage.
In his two seasons at Oklahoma State, Monken’s offense averaged 239.0 rushing yards and 6.8 yards per carry in its four games against Oklahoma and Texas. In a 2011 matchup against Baylor, a team that went 10-3 and finished ranked No. 13 in the country, the Cowboys rushed for 327 yards on 27 carries.
In 2015, Southern Miss had a pair of running backs top 1,000 yards. Ito Smith rushed for 1,128 yards (6.6 YPC) and 10 touchdowns while Jalen Richard rushed for 1,098 yards (5.9 YPC) and 14 touchdowns.
4. Schematic transition wouldn’t be overly challenging — There are certainly differences between what Monken has run at the collegiate level and what Notre Dame has in recent seasons. There would be new terminology and plenty of new concepts the Irish players would need to learn, but there would be enough foundational principles and philosophies that are close enough to allow for a relatively easy transition from the previous system to what Monken runs.
There are also some reasons for caution with Monken.
1. Doesn’t stick around very long — From 2000 to 2019, a span of 20 seasons, Monken has not been anywhere longer than four seasons (Jaguars, 2007-10) and has changed jobs eight times. He's had three stays of three years and three of just two years. If I’m Kelly this would concern me, and if Monken was my guy for the offensive coordinator position I would want to get a contractual guarantee that he stay at least two seasons.
Hiring an offensive coordinator who bolts after one season would not be ideal for Notre Dame, and that's putting it mildly.
2. Can he recruit? — Two of Monken’s longest coaching stints were in the NFL, and when a guy hasn’t been at a program very long it’s hard to know what kind of recruiter he actually is. Monken seems engaging, and his offense certainly sells itself, but Kelly would need to make sure Monken is engaged as a recruiter should he be the top candidate for the position. It would be challenging to have a head coach and offensive coordinator who aren't grinders on the recruiting trail.
3. Will he go back to his college roots? — Monken spent the last four seasons in the NFL, which isn’t very long. There is also more carryover between NFL and college offensive systems now than there was over a decade ago, but there are also still differences both from a rules and philosophical standpoint. I would want Monken to bring some of what he learned from the NFL, but I’d also want to make sure he's planning to go back to his roots that made him so effective at Oklahoma State and Southern Miss.
Monken and Moorhead are both proven and successful offensive coordinator candidates. They are different in many ways, but both have a long track record of success as coaches and play-callers. If they were committed to doing everything that goes with being an offensive coordinator at Notre Dame (establishing a culture, building a philosophy, recruiting to that philosophy, developing all the coaches within that philosophy/culture) both would be excellent hires.
Both come with risk, but that will be true no matter who you hire. But the risk with Moorhead and Monken has more to do with the non-coaching part of the position. From a coaching/coordinating/play-calling standpoint both would be home run hires by Kelly.