By Craig Haley, FCS Executive Director
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The toughest part of reinstalling the triple option at Georgia Southern might have been keeping a straight face.
When new head coach Jeff Monken brought the vaunted offensive system back to campus this year, most of the players on the roster had been recruited by the prior coaching staff to run a spread attack.
Let's just say the initial attempt at change wasn't pretty.
"We looked like Keystone Cops," Monken recalled. "The slot backs were running into each other in the backfield. We looked like a junior high team just learning football for the first time. It's like playing a different sport when you take guys who have never played in this offense. We had pretty much open tryouts for quarterback. We had a couple receivers, a couple (defensive backs), a couple running backs who said, 'I played that position in high school.' 'Okay, come on and try.' We just kind of limped on through and tried to teach them the basics."
When Georgia Southern moved into November with a 4-4 record and was about to play No. 1 Appalachian State, the Eagles probably would have been content to finish the season with a winning record.
Of course, a deep run in the playoffs was once expected on the Statesboro campus, located about 200 miles southeast of Atlanta. The Eagles are the winningest program in FCS (formerly Division I-AA) playoff history, with 41 victories (14 more than Montana, which is second) as well as six national championships from 1985-2000, when they also finished as the runner-up twice.
Monken was an assistant at the end of the big run, coaching five seasons under Paul Johnson from 1997-2001, including the national title seasons of 1999 and 2000. Each of the five squads won a Southern Conference title and reached at least the national quarterfinals, and they combined for a 62-10 record. Each also ran the triple option, a system that Monken remained a part of coaching for 13 seasons under Johnson after he followed him to Navy and Georgia Tech as an assistant.
"You just do what you believe in, and this is the offense I believe in because I know it better than any other offenses," said the 43-year-old Monken, who left Georgia Tech following last January's Orange Bowl appearance.
"It's just the offense we know and understand, and there's a real identity with this offense here at Georgia Southern. Just as the wing-T was for so many years at Delaware. There's still an identity with Delaware and the wing-T, though they don't run that offense anymore. It becomes a part of the fiber of the program."
Two important factors helped Georgia Southern through its growing pains. Junior quarterback Jaybo Shaw followed Monken from Georgia Tech as a transfer and had experience in running the triple option. The Eagles' 4-3 defense also played at a high level while the offense was trying to catch up.
To underscore that Monken has rebuilt the program ahead of schedule, consider that the Eagles were a combined 21-23 from 2006-09 and that none of the six players to make the All-SoCon team this fall is a senior. Junior right tackle Brett Moore, sophomore nose tackle Brent Russell, junior cornerback/return specialist Laron Scott and junior place-kicker Charlie Edwards made the first team, while junior defensive tackle Roderick Tinsley and sophomore linebacker Josh Rowe, their leading tackler, made the second team.
"They've done a great job," Delaware coach K.C. Keeler said. "It's a little bit like watching Lehigh, a little bit like watching New Hampshire, in terms of how much they've improved from the beginning of the year to now is just remarkable (Delaware has defeated both of those teams in the playoffs). When you're watching early them in the season, they're just an average football team. And now you watch 'em, there's four teams left, and there's a reason why they're one of four teams left. They're playing great football.
"Obviously, the offense is something that's going to be a challenge. It's going to be a little bit more of a challenge for us this year because every other year we've had to play this (type of option) offense.
"The good news is 10 of our kids who will start Saturday afternoon played against Navy (still an option team) last year. I think the recall can be there. We're probably going to be a little bit more basic defensively than we've been in the past against them just because we didn't have a chance to lay down the foundation. In terms of their defense, boy they're fast, they are fast. Except for maybe James Madison, they're the fastest defense we've seen. They just fly to the ball and they will absolutely smack you. It's a very good football team playing their best football right now."
Georgia Southern's average of 261.5 rushing yards per game ranks fourth in the FCS. Freshman fullback Robert Brown is closing in on 1,000 yards with 955, while Shaw (16 touchdowns), converted-wide receiver J.J. Wilcox and Don Robinson are the other chief run options. The Eagles average only 10 passes per game.
"We're still learning, we're still getting better at it each week. I hope we're getting better at it," said Monken, whose roster is over four-fifths deep with players from Georgia. "We've got plenty of missed assignments each week to tell me we don't have it down pat."
Monken and Keeler have great respect for each other, having squared off three times when Monken was an assistant at Navy. Before Keeler arrived at Delaware, Monken was a Georgia Southern assistant when the Eagles lost to the Blue Hens in a 1997 first-round playoff game and then beat them in a 2000 semifinal.
Monken is worried about the size advantage Delaware will have in the trenches as well as the All-America ability of senior quarterback Pat Devlin. The Blue Hens, the CAA Football co-champion, also have enjoyed two byes since Georgia Southern last had one on Oct. 2. The Eagles will be playing for the 11th straight weekend.
Still, this is a national level Monken envisioned he could get Georgia Southern to when he returned to Statesboro. Maybe not so soon, but he's not complaining, either.
And he's certainly happy the Eagles look a lot different than when they first started learning the triple option.
"It was pretty interesting," said Russell, who watched from the other side of the ball, and initially was getting blocked incorrectly by the offensive linemen. "You could tell the guys were confused with it at first. But it's been amazing to watch how they've progressed."
"I'm excited for them," Monken said. "There's been a lot of great teams here at Georgia Southern and a lot of terrific players that they hear about. They hear people in town talk about and they read the press guides and hear about them on the recruiting visits. When you're a part of a program like that that's had success and has a tradition, you want to be a part of them as well. And I think our guys just desperately wanted to experience that kind of success."