Ted Monachino Heads List of Five Coaches Who'll Make or Break the Jaguars
This article should be taken with an important grain of salt: every coach's job is critical, especially on a team like this year's Jaguars. The organization's focus is on building a team that will be a consistent winner in the near future, an about-face from last year's "win-now" mentality.
To create that foundation, each position group has to be developed and evaluated over the course of the coming season.
With that said, five members of Jacksonville's coaching staff have jobs to do in 2009 that will resonate into the next decade of Jaguars football, for better or worse.
1. Ted Monachino — Defensive Line Coach
On the first day of the 2008 NFL Draft, the Jaguars made two big trades to move up for two impact prospects at defensive end—the one consensus weak spot on a roster that looked like a Super Bowl contender otherwise.
After eleven losses and a drop in sacks in the season that followed, Jacksonville might seem to have swung and missed on Derrick Harvey and Quentin Groves.
Ted Monachino's main task, in short, is to turn one or both picks into home runs.
Entering his second season as the Jaguars' defensive line coach after five years at Arizona State in that role, Monachino isn't short on optimism, if his comments after the 2008 Draft are any indication:
"[Harvey] is the type of guy that can do a lot of things very well right now without any coaching," he said at the time. "Once he gets into the system and figures out what it is that we're asking him to do specifically, he's going to ramp his game up a long ways."
After a season in which Harvey led the Jaguars with 29 quarterback pressures but managed only 3.5 sacks and Groves saw minimal playing time as a pass rush specialist, Monachino remains upbeat about their potential going forward.
"I expect to see a dramatic difference because [Harvey and Groves] are physically ready to make that jump," he told Florida Times-Union writer Gene Frenette recently. "Harvey missed all that time in camp [because of a contract holdout] and he didn't catch up until the second half of the year."
Both players are committed to gaining weight this offseason; Groves, in particular, has set his target weight at 270 pounds after finishing the 2008 season weighing 251.
Bulking up would allow Jacksonville's second-year ends to hold their own on running downs, which would be a big help for the Jaguars' unsettled situation at the defensive tackle spots. Monachino's other charge this season, of course, is to improve on last year's underachieving rotation at that position. Whether that means more playing time for super sub Derek Landri, a big role for rookie Terrance Knighton, or retaining one of several undrafted free agents—or some other strategy—has to be determined.
If Monachino can get lemonade out of what some might see as a defensive line full of lemons, he'll validate the Jaguars' big investment from the 2008 Draft and set the team on track to rediscovering its hard-nosed defense of years past.
If not, the Jaguars saw what an ineffective line can do to a defense last year and can expect more of the same.
2. Andy Heck — Offensive Line Coach
Monachino's counterpart coaching the opposite side of the trenches has a similar puzzle to work with, and the pieces he's dealing with are quite the mixed bag.
Of Jacksonville's starting linemen from Week 17 of last season, only center Brad Meester should be considered an odds-on favorite to keep his job going into 2009.
Left tackle Khalif Barnes was allowed to leave in free agency; right tackle Tony Pashos didn't have a good enough year to preclude competition at his position, and the Jaguars will welcome back 2007 starting guards Vince Manuwai and Maurice Williams from the injured reserve list.
Andy Heck, himself a 12-year veteran NFL lineman who joined the Jaguars in 2004 after three years on the University of Virginia's coaching staff, will need to evaluate—and, in some cases, re-evaluate—the veterans in his position group going forward.
Jacksonville added William "Tra" Thomas, an 11-year starter at left tackle for the Eagles, in free agency prior to the draft. At the time, signing Thomas was a straight-forward fix for the opening in the Jaguars' line left by Barnes. Coming off a strong season in Philadelphia, Thomas represents an upgrade in pass protection, and his NFL experience is invaluable on a young team.
At right tackle, Pashos struggled in 2008 after a fine 2007 debut with the Jaguars.
The problem could very well have been a lack of chemistry with the revolving door situation next to him at right guard. Jacksonville had three different starters there last season, and would've had four had mid-season signing Chris Naeole not been injured before the Cleveland game.
Season-ending injuries to starting guards Manuwai and Williams had the one upside of spreading game experience around the Jaguars' depth chart. Uche Nwaneri and Dennis Norman, in particular, played big minutes in the 2008 campaign; Nwaneri could be called on to start early on if Heck isn't satisfied with Manuwai's progress rehabbing his knee.
The job of sorting out Jacksonville's linemen became pleasantly complicated when Virginia's Eugene Monroe fell into their laps at the eighth pick in this year's draft. Heck had nothing but high praise for his new charge after the pick had been made:
"[Monroe is] very intense, purposeful and professional," Heck said. "He is going to find out what he needs to do and he is going to do that and then some. There is not going to be a lot of jacking with this guy because he is about business."
Jacksonville's second-round pick, Arizona lineman Eben Britton, embodies the difficult task ahead for Heck. Britton started at both left and right tackle in college and has the physicality and lower body strength to contribute at guard if needed. Essentially, his skill set is a camp challenge for any starter to the right of Monroe and Thomas.
However he sorts through the Jaguars' influx of new and returning talent along the offensive line, Heck's success in putting a cohesive unit on the field while preparing the younger players to be starters will be the foundation for Jacksonville's success on offense, now and in the future.
3. Luke Richesson — Strength and Conditioning Coach
When asked to describe his main objective for the Jaguars as their new strength coach, Luke Richesson told Jaguars.com's Vic Ketchman that, most of all, he wants the team to build a new attitude:
"The attitude I’m looking for is one of extreme confidence," Richesson said. "We’re taking our ships, we’re burning them and we’re not going back, we’re going forward."
A lack of team unity has been blamed for Jacksonville's disappointing 2008 season, and the call has come from owner Wayne Weaver, general manager Gene Smith, and head coach Jack Del Rio to change the team's culture.
Richesson, who spent the past nine years as a performance specialist at Athletes' Performance in Phoenix—coaching 44 first-round picks and 14 players from the 2008 Pro Bowl rosters in that span—is looking to help effect that change, starting with a fresh take on offseason conditioning.
"The first thing we did was gut [the weight room], top to bottom," Richesson said. "We sold everything else. We got a fair price on it and we were able to outfit our weight room for an extremely good deal. It’s allowed us to maximize our floor space, train in groups and get back that team chemistry."
But Richesson's new charges also missed a total of 115 games due to injury in 2008, and the Jaguars' 2005 and 2006 seasons were also derailed by injuries to key players. His work on reducing that number will be a statistical measure of his effectiveness as a coach, and he has a tested method for the job:
"[The players are] going to go through a seven-exercise test that’ll determine what their level of mobility and stability is right now," Richesson said.
"If you have a [score of] zero or one, how do we get you to a two? A perfect score is 21. If you get below 14, your chance of injury is increased. That’s one way we’re going to ensure health, to have that test checked and re-checked during the season.
"The game is a violent game. The collisions are like being in a car wreck. The more functional training you can do, the more you can reduce the risk."
Thus far, Richesson's new regimen has been received well by the players.
"He's working muscles you normally wouldn't work," said defensive end Reggie Hayward, who likened the program to "what Fred Taylor did" in his personal offseason workouts.
Quarterback David Garrard's streamlined physique is an example of the noticeable change Richesson hopes to effect in the team. The Jaguars' signal-caller has trimmed nearly 20 pounds off his stocky 250-pound frame from the end of last season, reporting to work at an athletic 232 pounds.
Richesson isn't necessarily emphasizing slimming down across the board; his goal for the linemen, for example, is to have them be "the meanest, baddest guys on the team." But, as he puts it, if a new attitude is goal number 1A, "athleticism would be 1B."
If Richesson can get the team to buy into his overhaul of Jacksonville's strength training, he'll have them mean, hungry, and healthy for this season and those to come.
4. Mel Tucker — Defensive Coordinator
Opinions vary on what, exactly, the Jaguars had in mind when they chose Mel Tucker to replace Gregg Williams as their defensive coordinator. Tucker had been the Browns' defensive coordinator in 2008, but lost his job when head coach Romeo Crennel was fired.
Rumors of transitioning to a two-gap 3-4 defense similar to the Browns' turned out to be very premature:
"We don't have the big D-line that's going to sit in a 3-4 all day," head coach Jack Del Rio explained. "I think you've got to have those three big lunks down inside that could just kind of hold up and let the other guys do their thing. So we're not going to go to it wholesale."
The Jaguars experimented unsuccessfully with two-gapping in Williams' blitz-heavy schemes last season, a marked change from the aggressive man-gap scheme of Del Rio's past teams where each lineman attacks a space between blockers.
"We have, over the years, used '30' looks in sub," Del Rio acknowledged. "We could do some of that in base as well."
Tucker's experience coaching the 3-4 defense in Cleveland should allow the Jaguars to implement those looks intelligently. He has acknowledged, however, that Del Rio will be very involved with his defense in the upcoming season.
"If you have a coach with a lot of experience and expertise who is a good teacher and a good motivator, that's a good asset for your defense,'' Tucker said. "I see it as a positive.
"I consider myself a servant leader anyway. I'm trying to help anyone I can and to do my best for the organization. It's not about me."
Judging from his past coaching experience, Tucker's biggest help might be in working with the defensive backs from a defense that ranked 24th against the pass in 2008. Before being hired as Cleveland's defensive coordinator in 2005, Tucker worked with defensive backs at Ohio State, LSU, and Miami of Ohio from 1998-2004.
At Ohio State, Tucker coached All-Americans Mike Doss, Will Allen, and Chris Gamble, and corner Leigh Bodden—who signed with the Patriots this offseason—made significant strides under Tucker in Cleveland.
The Jaguars are set at one of the two cornerback spots; Rashean Mathis finished last season on the injured reserve list, but is back healthy and has earned his reputation as one of the league's elite cover corners. Tucker's most important job, however, will be to sort out and develop the other three positions in Jacksonville's secondary.
Veteran Brian Williams, who has moved back and forth between corner and strong safety in the past two years, has been a steady presence in that unit. But the Jaguars expect more improvement from 2007 first-round pick Reggie Nelson after his so-so sophomore season.
The Jaguars will also want to develop free agent acquisition Sean Considine, who couldn't hold down a starting job at safety with the Eagles, and rookie corner Derek Cox—for whom Jacksonville traded next year's second round pick.
With the head ball-coach chipping in on defensive coordinator duties, Tucker's main contribution to the Jaguars, for this season and beyond, will be to coach up his secondary as a unit and develop its young talents.
5. Todd Monken — Wide Receivers Coach
Jacksonville's offseason overhaul is perhaps nowhere more apparent than at wide receiver. Gone are Matt Jones and Reggie Williams, two first-round picks whose on-field struggles to evolve past possession targets into legitimate number-one talents figured as heavily as their off-field problems in their release.
In their place, the Jaguars wooed former All-Pro receiver Torry Holt in free agency and added a stable of small, fast receivers on the second day of this year's draft—players whose talents match quarterback David Garrard's penchant for short, quick throws.
Holt, a consummate professional, should fit himself into the offense just fine. But the test for receivers coach Todd Monken, who enters his third season in that role with the Jaguars after 16 years in the college ranks, will be how well he works rookies Mike Thomas, Jarrett Dillard, and Tiquan Underwood into the gameplan.
One of Monken's developmental prospects, third-year man Mike Walker, will be asked to take on a greater role in the passing game this year after flashing productivity in 2008. Walker opened eyes nationally with a six-catch, 107-yard performance against Pittsburgh on Sunday Night Football last October, but has been hampered in terms of consistency by injuries.
Ideally, Walker would step into a starting role on one flank that would leave veteran Dennis Northcutt free to play his natural position in the slot. A starting trio of Holt, a healthy Walker, and Northcutt would be more than serviceable this season, with the rookies who make the team getting experience in spot duty.
With his past receivers, Jaguars.com's Vic Ketchman argues, Monken had "an impossible assignment."
"[Jones and Williams] lumbered," Ketchman wrote in a recent column. "They were poor route-runners. They raised their upper bodies as they went into their cuts and they were slow coming out of them. That’s why so many of the passes they caught in games were face-ups.
"Now," he says, "Monken has players who can move."
For their part, Jacksonville's rookie receivers are doing their honest best to put Monken's coaching into practice.
"I ran a couple of routes and felt myself thinking about [them]," Dillard told Jacksonville.com's Michael Wright. "[I'm] trying to get it down to the perfect technical way that coach [Monken] had coached us. I'm right back to being a redshirt freshman out here again."
With Holt and Northcutt as steady presences, Walker up-and-coming, and an offense that's still very much a run-first unit, the rookies don't have to be quick studies, so long as they develop the tools to contribute in the future.
But with two of his underachieving prospects having been shown the door this offseason, Monken could use this promising group to show what he can do with coachable talent.
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