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Illinois Football Coaching Search: The Case Against Jeff Monken

The Illinois native and triple option guru has many appealing traits, but he’s not the right fit for the Illini

Navy v Army Photo by Dustin Satloff/Getty Images

Check out here for the case for why Illinois should hire Jeff Monken.

Full disclosure, I played football in high school as a fullback (sometimes known as a “B” back) in a flexbone triple option system. I’ve seen firsthand the advantages of this offensive scheme, as well as its many drawbacks. And as excited as I’d be to see the scheme brought to Illinois, I know that the triple option is simply not a path to success in Champaign.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the flexbone triple option, the video below and the wiki offer in depth looks at how the system works:

Jeff Monken has been actively involved with the triple option since he began his college coaching career under Paul Johnson at Georgia Southern in 1997. Johnson was a major proponent of the triple option, and brought the system, as well as Monken, with him wherever he coached. Monken worked under Johnson until filling the Georgia Southern head coaching vacancy in 2010, and then he moved to Army in 2013, where he’s been ever since.

So what’s the issue with the triple option?

There are a number of direct and indirect flaws with the systems that would manifest at Illinois should Monken bring the system to Champaign. In terms of problems directly inherent to the offense, the key to stopping it is actually fairly simple once a defense watches enough film and gets enough reps in practice: discipline. A well-coached defense, and especially one with a talent advantage, can grind the flexbone option to a halt with sound gap integrity and keen awareness of where the ball is and where it’s going. This is a main reason why no NFL team ever adopted the option as a full offensive system; well-coached, talented, and disciplined defenses (of which there are many in the Big Ten) are the Achilles heel of any option offense.

And once the option stops working, option-based offenses can’t simply open up a spread package and play a different brand of football in the same way the Rod Smith could pull Isaiah Williams and insert Brandon Peters. The triple option is so intrinsically different from other offenses in so many ways that option teams simply couldn’t effectively create a backup package for emergency situations. If the run game isn’t working for an option team, then the game is effectively over.

The indirect problems with the triple option are potentially even more problematic than the flaws of the system itself. For better or for worse, Illinois never established a strong offensive schematic identity under Lovie Smith, as Rod Smith’s spread attack is relatively flexible with regards to the player types it can use.

This is not the case for the flexbone triple option, which in many cases requires relatively unusual body types for college football players: quickness and speed are the key attributes of the offensive linemen, the wide receivers must be strong perimeter blockers as they’ll likely be blocking for 95% of offensive plays, and the same is true of the running backs, who become run blockers in the open field when they aren’t one of the options on a given play. Most problematic is the unusual characteristics needed in the quarterback: first and foremost the QB must be a tough yet fast runner who can (and often will) carry the ball much more often more than he’ll pass it. Just check out the box score from the recent Army-Navy game and you’ll see what I mean.

The other underlying issue with player types needed for the triple option is the limited opportunities in the NFL for underweight offensive linemen (most of Army’s OL is under 300 pounds), bulky blocking receivers and running backs, and quarterbacks who are accustomed to passing only once or twice per game. Between Illinois’ already poor reputation among recruits and its high academic standards, Illinois can’t really withstand yet another recruiting obstacle.

For many Illini fans, the solution here is simple: hire Jeff Monken, an Illinois native and who seems motivated to take the helm at Illinois, away from the Army Black Knights and force him to adopt a different/modified offensive scheme. As tempting as this train of thought seems, it would be like a restaurant hiring a new chef but telling the chef to reinvent their menu rather than relying on the signature dishes that the chef in question spent decades perfecting.

Illinois either hires Jeff Monken and fully embraces the triple option, or Josh Whitman would be better off going with another candidate. I would strongly prefer the latter.