Todd Monken, offensive players preview National Championship game vs. Alabama
UGA football offensive coordinator Todd Monken and two players, James Cook and Kearis Jackson, spoke with the media on Wednesday about the College Football Playoff National Championship against the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Georgia and Alabama will square off on Monday, Jan. 10, 2022 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind. The game will be televised by ESPN at 8:00pm ET.
Below is a transcript of the virtual press conference which was provided by ASAP Sports.
Q. Wanted to tap into a little bit of your past experience in college and the NFL. When you joined Georgia, is part of the allure being able to work with so many guys who are sort of the potential to be future NFL players? You’ve worked at many different levels. I’m wondering being drawn back to Georgia, part was, hey, this is where all the best and future NFL players go?
COACH MONKEN: I think you hit it on the head. You want to be at a place where you have no barriers to success. And that starts with being able to get great football players. Working with a great staff, an elite academic institution and being right down the road from Atlanta.
So when you’re recruiting players and their families, we check all the boxes. You want to be a place where you check all the boxes. And that was the University of Georgia.
Q. Doing a story on Brock Bowers. How soon before he got on campus did you realize that he was going to have such an impact on your offense? And how have you made him a better tight end, and how has he made you a better offensive coordinator?
COACH MONKEN: The first part of it is, first of all, you saw his work ethic. I spoke about that a week ago about how he’s wired. So we don’t have to touch on that anymore. He’s wired the right way. He works awfully hard at his craft. He only knows one speed.
So right away we knew he’d be able to contribute. Did we know to this extent? Of course not. But once we saw him work, his skill set, we knew we had a chance to have somebody that we could rely on. And as he’s continued to develop — Coach Hartley deserves a lot of credit, one for recruiting him; two, for developing him.
We’ve just tried to continually move him around, put him in position to make plays. He’s embraced that. He works awfully hard. He has a lot more to do with what we do in terms of how he works and how he prepares than I’ve had to do with his progression, and that’s just because of the way he’s wired.
Q. As great as Stetson was the other night, as really as good as he’s been, there’s obviously two games against Alabama that are kind of a blot on his resumé. Do you see anything kind of common in those games that is instructive about this one, or did you see those two games as just kind of separate from the rest of what Stetson does?
COACH MONKEN: Well, I mean, I don’t see it as those two games are going to predict the future. I don’t see it that way. I see it as he’s played, I don’t know how many games at starting quarterback, and like any player they’ve had their moments where they haven’t played up to what they believe their standard to be or we believe that standard to be. It just so happens to have come in the second half against the team we’re about to play.
But we just need to understand that the first two halves of each of those games was outstanding, and I’ve said that before. He has everything we need to be successful offensively. And our issues with turnovers aren’t his issue, particularly. That’s everybody in this country — if you turn the ball over you’re not going to win, no matter how you do it.
The first turnover a year ago was a batted ball that was out of his control. The second interception was a tipped pass on an end cut that went directly to them. The third one was a poor decision.
So the bottom line is I can do better as a coordinator to put him in better position to be successful. He understands that. Our team understands that. So I expect him to play well just like I did last week.
Q. In that vein, you have an extensive NFL background, playing another team in close proximity just a few weeks later. Tell me a little bit about the decisions on what to change, what to do different, what to keep the same. And maybe have that same thing seem different and that kind of stuff. Seems pretty complicated.
COACH MONKEN: Well, you’re right, it is a little bit different. You do get that in the NFL with your division teams where you play them twice. And sometimes you can play them relatively close together like this is.
And we played them last year. So we’ve got enough film on what they want to do and they’re not going to change. They’re successful for a reason for what they do and so are we.
If you’re constantly changing what you do and your identity, I don’t think you’re going to be very good at anything. So obviously we take from the things that we did well and build on that and the things we didn’t do as well. And obviously there’s calls that we had that in both games or other opportunities that we didn’t get called.
So we’re looking forward to the opportunity and the shot at it. And they’re going to get our best, I can promise you that.
Q. How do you best quantify the improvements when you’re talking about Stetson, that he’s made from last year to right now being starting quarterback?
COACH MONKEN: Obviously, second year in the system. Being around us as a coaching staff, what we do offensively is big. And just playing. I think we forgot at times that he really hadn’t played a lot of football here. And I think being around the same players.
I think the consistency that we’ve had at times that we’ve tried to get the ball to those guys have helped. But to me he’s matured in terms of understanding what we want to get done. And also just playing. There’s just the reps that you get in practice and then games that get into your memory bank, whether they’re scars or things you’ve solved or decision-making, I think all comes into that.
And the longer you play — a guy like Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady or those guys or Ryan Fitzpatrick — some of the things they do now they didn’t do early on in their career. That develops over time. And they continued to improve their game and their understanding of what we want done.
Q. You were pretty emphatic of your support for Stetson last week when talking about JT. Stetson’s got 10 touchdowns in the last three games. I wondered if there was a point where, I don’t know what the word is, that you trusted him more to go downfield, to do more things, or is that overestimating it?
COACH MONKEN: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I think the hardest part is the way our season has gone. Our season, we’ve had a tremendous season, and for a number of those games we put ourselves in position to where we didn’t need the quarterback to make plays in the second half of games. So people could look at that and say, well, why didn’t you take the opportunity to continue to get more reps or get other quarterbacks opportunities.
Not in my mind. My mind was to win that one game in particular and get off the field without injuries. And so that’s probably the hardest part when you try to look at throwing the ball down the field in terms of the opportunity. Our defense played so well.
And so I think that’s probably a little unfair that we didn’t trust him to throw it down the field. It was just a matter of opportunities, I think, is more than anything because the way the games went.
Q. You talk about Georgia checking all the boxes in terms of resources and recruiting area and facilities and everything else. Were you aware they hadn’t won a title since 1980 when you got there? How much have you heard about it and what would it mean to end it?
COACH MONKEN: I had not because I really, in a lot of ways, that didn’t factor into it because I knew what the place was like now.
And I knew the success that they had and were awfully close in previous years to that. And that’s what you can ask, is just an opportunity to put yourself in the tournament or in position, I guess, the best way to put it.
So I just knew that the opportunity to get really good players, a leading academic institution, Atlanta being right down the road, unbelievable support, and I think that’s where you want to be.
Q. I wanted to ask about your time with the Buccaneers. I’m sure you learned something every stop you’ve been at. What about your time with the Bucs has helped you become a better coach at this level?
COACH MONKEN: Well, first of all, I loved my time at Tampa, the three years I was there working for a close friend and mentor, Dirk Koetter, gave me an opportunity to come back to the NFL as an offensive coordinator. We still have a place down there.
But the organization was first class, the Glazers treated me with unbelievable respect. The front office was tremendous. What I remember is unfortunately we just didn’t get it done; we didn’t win enough games. But really enjoyed the players. We had a great nucleus of players.
I learned a lot in terms of how hard it is to win in the NFL. And I shouldn’t say I learned that. I knew that anyways. But it’s hard to win in the NFL.
But the bottom line is we didn’t win enough games, but the relationships that I had with everybody as part of the organization and the coaches and the players was unbelievable.
Q. Being a guy that grew up in the Midwest, what would it be like to coach this game in Indianapolis? Will you have family coming from that part of the country? And being a play caller in the national championship game, does that excite you as a guy who has been doing that for a long time?
COACH MONKEN: I don’t miss the cold. That part doesn’t excite me. Thank God the game is indoors, so that doesn’t factor in it. Sure, it’s always nice to see family come and see us play, but we obviously don’t control that.
But I’m excited for the game. I’m excited for our players. This is about our players and the opportunity that they have in front of them that they’ve earned. And they’ve earned this by the hard work they’ve put in starting at the end of last year. This is a year-long process. And our guys have been through it to get to this point and to have this opportunity.
And it’s everything that we do it for, everybody has this initial goal going into it. And our guys have worked incredibly hard to get to this point and have trusted in the message that we’ve sent and they’ve carried that out for the most part throughout the year. So I’m excited to see them play.
This doesn’t come around very often, this opportunity to win a championship. So I think our guys are excited. We’ve started off the week the right way and we’ll see.
Q. On Brock Bowers, how do you approach Alabama playing the second time now and trying to stay a step ahead of them presumably with them trying to stop him after the impact he had in the first game?
COACH MONKEN: Oh, I don’t know. I mean, we’d be guessing. We’d be guessing at certain things they would do to stop a particular player. We’ve got film from the last few years of them playing some really really good players. You go back to playing LSU a couple years ago with the receivers they had and Joe Burrow, and they did a couple of things to kind of change that up a little bit but the reality is they’re good because they do what thy do.
Sure, do they understand an opponent’s really good players and what you want to do schematically? Of course. But they knew that going into the last game. Obviously he had a number of catches, but they knew that going into the last game.
So we don’t anticipate a heck of a lot different. But maybe just in terms of where he’s located or different calls based on formation sets and what we do to get him the ball. But outside of that, to think that they’re going to line up two guys over him and double team him would be a stretch.
Q. Obviously we see you operating the 10,000-foot view from the press box. But on the sidelines we see JT engaging Stetson and we hear Kirby talking about the quarterback room. I think you mentioned it. How important is that and as far as the in-game adjustments for those quarterbacks to communicate?
COACH MONKEN: I think any communication can be positive or negative depending on how it’s presented and what you’re telling a player. It can be a positive or negative for me; it can be a positive or negative from any interaction you give a quarterback, from a confidence standpoint, an awareness standpoint, from what you’re expecting to see or what you’ve seen.
All of that is a plus. I think JT will do a great job in a very tough situation of embracing that part of it and doing everything he can to help Stetson and us in game prep and being ready should the opportunity arise. And Stetson has done the same even when he wasn’t playing.
So, I do think those guys staying involved in the game and the information that we give them is critically important throughout the game.
Q. From your years in the NFL and major college football, where would you rank Will Anderson’s ability to wreak havoc on opposing offenses and (indiscernible) preparation?
COACH MONKEN: Well, you certainly want to know where he is. It’s not just from pass-rush standpoint. He does a really good job, if you get into the zone read game, where he tries to hit you at the junction point and try to disrupt from the open side.
So — and he plays with relentless effort. I think he has a tremendous skill set. They do a good job moving him around and he plays with relentless effort. Those are all good signs of a player that you’ve always got to be aware of where he’s at and the matchups that you have.
And like any team, they’re no different, just like with him, just like last week, you gotta be careful about getting yourself in a drop-back passing game at any time and putting yourself at risk.
JAMES COOK, RB
Q. Wanted to ask, Stetson got a lot of criticism this year. He seems to have done a pretty good job kind of not listening to the noise and staying focused. Even heard he’s had a flip phone which might play into that a little bit. But wanted to ask you what you can say about your quarterback’s focus and poise in those situations where some people don’t believe in him.
JAMES COOK: I mean, he just kind of ignored it and blocked it out. Did a ton of work every day to lead us to a national championship. That’s what he’s been doing all year and all season long.
Q. If I’m not mistaken, you’ve played for three different offensive coordinators while you’ve been at Georgia. And I just wonder if you could sort of give us some perspective on what it’s like to play for Todd Monken. What’s maybe different about him?
JAMES COOK: I mean, what’s different about him? He want all the little details right. He doesn’t want no — he don’t want you running the route on air. He want it to be perfect. Like, in a game, if you get this look, he wants you to make it like you’re in the game. So that’s what’s kind of different about him because he was in the NFL, I guess, probably and they do things a little different. So it’s just about the little details and things like that.
Q. What was it like sitting out the bowl game last year and seeing your position coach with your jersey number? I’m sure that was emotional and very difficult. And then kind of part two of that is, as you’re getting ready for this game, how much is your father kind of on your mind?
JAMES COOK: I mean, I try not to think about that as much. But I mean him wearing my jersey last year, that was special. And I appreciate it from the whole Georgia staff, everybody around here who texted me and gave me encouraging words. I mean, just everybody around here just made me feel special.
Q. How much did that factor in deciding to come back to try to win a national championship? How big was that?
JAMES COOK: I mean that was big because I had something to work for. And why I came back is because I’ve never been to a national championship. And so I just wanted it to be different and come back.
Q. Working on a story on Brock Bowers. When I mention the name Brock Bowers to you, what comes to your mind?
JAMES COOK: Oh, he just put his head down and work. Don’t really say too much. Gives you all he got on the field. And I mean just a great brother, a great teammate.
Q. I don’t know if we asked you this the other night, I wasn’t in on that interview, but how many times did you all run that pass with — that trick play with Kenny, half back pass? And were any other running backs considered in that decision — you or Daijun or Zeus [phonetic]?
JAMES COOK: No, that’s just play. We worked on it all week leading up to the game. And we ran it in a game.
Q. What can you say about your relationship with your brother? And what type of conversation do you have going into a game like this with him obviously excelling at the running back craft as well?
JAMES COOK: I mean, he really just tells me to stay locked in all year and get what I deserve. And that’s where I’m at now. So he just tell me keep working and my time is going to come. And my team is here.
So I’ve got to make the most of it because you only get one of these opportunities. And you can say this is my last one. So I’ve got to make the most of it.
Q. We’ve seen at times Georgia backs maybe not get into a rhythm; there’s so much substituting. I know Zamir gets the bulk of the carries. You seem to have found a way to flip the switch when you get into a game. Is that something you have to learn as a running back? Because we hear so much about the need to get rhythm and yet they put you in there and you’re kind of like the microwave heating up fast.
JAMES COOK: I just try to make my opportunity when I get the ball. Like me, when I think about — when I get the ball, I think about going 80 every time. So it don’t make me no different who get the ball.
As long as I keep making my opportunities count when I get it, then that’s going to work. I don’t really need to get into the groove, really. As soon as I get the ball, I make all my opportunities count.
Q. Wanted to ask you about the SEC Championship loss. What were your emotions after that game? We’ve heard from some of the other guys. But can you take me back to how you were feeling immediately when that game was over?
JAMES COOK: I knew we had another shot myself and I knew we’d get another opportunity. When we came out of the practice there, everybody came to work, we got that bad taste out of our mouth on Friday.
Q. Talk about against Alabama’s running defense. They controlled Cincinnati so much on New Year’s Eve. What do you have to do to get that running game established? Because they were pretty decent up front.
JAMES COOK: Just stay focused on what we’ve been doing all year. We’ve got the guys up front, too. We’ve just got to stay physical like we’ve been doing all year and come and play.
Q. You’ve been making these sort of plays since your freshman year. What’s the difference between the James Cook we see now and the guy that all other teammates were talking about your freshman year?
JAMES COOK: I mean, I really kind of proved myself back then because I had a lot of guys in front of me. But now I think I let it loose because I’m older now and I know what to do. I’m experienced and I’m a vet. So I just kind of let it loose this year than working all season to get to this point now.
Q. You mentioned your brother. How much motivation is that, growing up to have an older brother doing everything he’s done and he’s obviously in the NFL doing everything you hope to do, how much has that been a motivational factor during your life?
JAMES COOK: That is a motivational factor just knowing that you’ve got an older brother in the NFL. And that’s someplace you want to be some day. So that just kind of make me wanted to work extra hard knowing that I had an older brother in the league and is a baller. That played a factor too.
Q. Nolan talks about leaving a legacy and potentially being a Georgia legend, is that something that the team is embracing heading into this game?
JAMES COOK: No doubt. We just wanted to do something and be special that nobody can take away from us and to be here for like we come back they can bring us up and not the 1980 team. That is just special just winning the national championship here at Georgia.
KEARIS JACKSON, WR
Q. I know you weren’t necessarily around on that 2018 team that lost to Alabama in the championship, but I’m curious, does it seem like they sort of have your number in that every time that Georgia goes up against them, no matter if you’re leading in the half, that they’re still just this team you can’t quite overcome? Does it seem like — not everyone else — but a few other teams like LSU and Clemson have been able to get a win over Alabama, does it just feel that Georgia has not been able to measure up to that?
KEARIS JACKSON: This team hasn’t played Alabama in a national championship before other than the 2018 team. But just being able to get this opportunity to go play in a national championship, the biggest stage for all of our careers, we’re playing one of the biggest games of our lives, it’s awesome.
Just being able to go against a fantastic team like Alabama on a big stage like this, can’t take this opportunity for granted. Just gotta go out there and play our best game.
Q. On that note, as an elite athlete, all you guys are, both sides, both sidelines, how do you handle that, moments like this? Bright lights, cameras flying around, cameras in your face everywhere you turn around — and focus on playing as well as you can. Do you get anxious? Is there a routine that you have that helps you deal with all the expectations and pressure?
KEARIS JACKSON: I mean, gotta trust the technique and tunnel vision throughout the entire week. Made it this far. There have been ton of cameras and things on the sidelines for every game. But this game you’re playing for something bigger, that’s the national championship. Just can’t let it let us lose our focus, but keep our tunnel vision of what got us here.
Q. Describe the energy it’s given the rest of the wide receiver room to have George Pickens back? And what did you think of the pancake block against Michigan?
KEARIS JACKSON: George brings a lot of interest to the team and receiver room. And the block he put up against Michigan was kind of funny. I didn’t notice it until I seen the video going around. He does it all the time, did it last year, the year before it. That’s just the way that George plays, very physical and just love to do things to go viral, I guess.
Q. Being a kid from Georgia, a guy from Georgia, what would it mean to be part of the team that ended the 41-year drought for you personally?
KEARIS JACKSON: It means a lot, especially growing up in south Georgia, Fort Valley, Georgia. There’s a lot of border offense down that way.
Ever since I’ve been going to school here, when I committed here, the whole community just been showing love, even in Athens as well, just being able to know that all they want, for everyone, all they want is a Georgia championship.
So with me knowing that, with my team knowing as well, not only are we fighting for each other but we’re fighting for the ones in our community as well because they’re Georgia fans just like we are. And in order for them to get a championship we’ve got to go out there do our job so we can get one as well. It’s going to be a major win for us to go win one.
Q. How important is it to have guys like Ladd and Brock and some of these other guys who have helped especially when you guys have dealt with a lot of injuries at the receiver position this year?
KEARIS JACKSON: Those guys have stepped up tremendously. Like you say, we had guys down early in the season. Those guys stepped up — next player up mentality. And they always prepare for the moments. We practice hard every day, every game. Every practice is like a game.
They have prepared mentally and physically as well the things we do, Coach Smart put us through in practice, be well prepared for the game.
Q. At what point in the season did you realize maybe even before the season that Brock Bowers would have as big an impact on your offense as he has? And is there one specific play either in practice or in the game that really stands out to you about his play this season?
KEARIS JACKSON: I knew Brock Bowers was going to be a playmaker back in the fall. He was out there making plays. He reminded me of Travis Kelce just the way he was making plays. And having a tight end like him has been a huge addition to the team.
The play versus Bama in the SEC Championship game, he caught the ball, felt like, three, four times and ended up scoring. He’s a dog. But he’s been certified in my book and just the way he plays, he’s a dog, that’s all I can say.
Q. Could you describe briefly the walk-on culture at Georgia? Do they dress in a different place before practice? And what kind of confident does it take from a guy like Stetson Bennett, you weren’t there, but to step on campus and believe I can be the starting quarterback at Georgia?
KEARIS JACKSON: I don’t know where you get the dressing part from, we’re all a team. We all dress in the same locker room. We all treat each other the same. One has a scholarship, one doesn’t have one. But we don’t look at that as any — makes any one bigger or not.
But Stetson, he came in as a walk-on. He came back, was on scholarship. He worked his way up. He listened, didn’t listened to everyone who was down here. He just kept his head down and kept pushing and kept chopping. Everyone has the ability to be able to make plays. It’s all about the opportunity you’re given. He made every opportunity the best.
Q. Couple of historical type questions. One is as a Georgia receiver, how tuned in are you to the legend of Lindsay Scott?
KEARIS JACKSON: Just proud of what’s going on. And just, as a receiver, we just have to see what’s going on and that’s the most important thing for us to just focus on what’s going on.
Q. He was a member of the 1980 team. And how much does that team get brought up to you guys, even now?
KEARIS JACKSON: It gets brought up pretty often just knowing that that was the last national championship that was won at Georgia, which meant, like, 41 years from now. And just knowing that that’s the goal is just to win a championship here and just hearing those names and things like that going on just kind of motivates us that we have the team to do it.
And it’s the year now with the opportunity right in front of us, January 10th. We have to go make a statement so we can be the next ones that people are going to be talking about, the 2021 team.
Q. I think you were an early enrollee in 2018. So I’m not sure if you were there while the team was practicing for the national championship game. But if you were, what do you remember about that time and what do you remember about watching the game and maybe some of the disappointment in the result?
KEARIS JACKSON: Actually, I was here when we was practicing for the national championship. And just being a part of the team just for that short amount of period for a whole week, it felt like I was part of the team. Felt like I was getting ready to go play. But that wasn’t the story.
But just the work those guys put in — I was a scout team member — I felt like I was trying to give my best look to try to push myself that I’m going against one of the top defenses in the country and just knowing that they was going to get ready to go play a national championship game made me feel a part of the team as well.
Just going back home after all the practices, being able to watch the game on TV kind of fueled myself that, man, in the next few months I’m about to be in those same colors with those same guys, can be playing for something that’s bigger than I ever expected, the national championship.
And today it’s finally presented itself that I’ll be playing in my first national championship. It’s been like a dream come true and a journey as well.
Q. What kind of competitor is Kirby Smart, and do you have any memories, any stories about him in practice that kind of shows his competitive side?
KEARIS JACKSON: I’m pretty sure you can see his competitive side on the sideline when they flip the camera on him during the game. He’s always hyped up. Gotta (indiscernible) mindset. That’s why I like playing for Coach Smart. He’s always been a competitor. He lets us compete in practices as well by letting us going good on good and showing what we’ve got and what we’re capable of doing.
When you do that, competitor versus competitor, all you’re doing is sharpening the iron. And that’s what Coach Smart preaches every day, compete.
Q. Talk about your journey. I guess we’ve seen you go through just about everything, too — tailback reps, hamstring, wrist injury, go-to guy, nine catches, 147 yards, return guy, and now a blocking receiver playing a smaller role maybe with the ball in your hands. Talk about that perseverance and how have you maintained such consistency going through all those different things in your career?
KEARIS JACKSON: I pretty much say I started when I was a child. My mom was always hard on me, things like that. Everything is not going to go your way. Once you hit adversity just gotta know how to respond with it.
My mom always just taught me just keep your head down, don’t let one injury or one bad downfall define who you is as a person.
And I know my role is a little smaller this year, I still take it as a major key part of this team because I am. And just knowing what I’m doing for this team, I’m playing my role just being there for my teammates. That’s the best thing I can do right now. And I’m enjoying it, man.
So far, it’s just to play in the national championship. It’s not just what I can do as a person but what can we do as a team.
Q. Earlier on you mentioned practice being tougher than games. When did you first realize that was the case at Georgia, and how do you make that adjustment to where you’re practicing harder than you are playing in games?
KEARIS JACKSON: My first spring here, honestly, we had like 18 some peers. I was, like, I’m not used to this but at the same time, I’m not going to say I wasn’t used to it. I just wasn’t used to the volume of running we was doing.
Growing up at Peach County, going to Peach County High School, all our practices was physical. We could be playing on a Friday and be still tackling on Thursday. I’m pretty much built for like the physical part.
Just all the volume, all the running and things like that, had to get in shape, get adjusted to, like, the way of Georgia practicing. I just wasn’t too far behind when I got here, things like that as far as in terms of being physical. But I did have to learn like how to push myself a little bit harder, be able to sustain reps, sustain practice time, because everything gets a little bit longer once you get in college and things like that.
It’s just been like pretty much been an adjustment in the way I was prepared before I got to college as well.
Q. Can you take me back to the SEC Championship game and your emotions once that game was over, how did you feel?
KEARIS JACKSON: I was hurt. I was hurt. The SEC Championship game is always around my birthday. And, like, for the past three, four years I’ve been at Georgia, that’s all I wanted for my birthday was an SEC Championship win.
Obviously I haven’t won anything yet. But it’s always just a tough moment. Of course I want to win it for myself, but I want to win it for my teammates as well.
Just being able to lose those championship games really was hurtful. But now I’m just grateful and blessed that you see the thing behind me, 2022 national championship, I’m able to play in something that’s bigger than the SEC Championship.