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John Donovan Finally Addresses Media, Deflects Blame for Offensive Woes

For the entirety of Penn State’s 6-6 schlep through the regular season, James Franklin was forced to answer for languid blocking, errant passing, stagnant rushing, and overall poor offense. That’s because heavily-criticized offensive coordinator John Donovan did not address the media once this season, not since the Nittany Lions’ preseason media day on August 4, more than three weeks before the season opener.

Saturday, at Penn State’s Pinstripe Bowl media day, Donovan got his chance to answer for his unit’s shortcomings. Following losses this season, Franklin consistently preached that he — as the head coach — had to do a better job preparing his team, and that the losses fell on him.

Following his first loss, a 29-6 thumping to Northwestern, Franklin said, “We will get this fixed. I promise you and guarantee that… I take full responsibility.”

Unlike Franklin, however, Donovan refused to take full responsibility, and instead cited a myriad list of reasons for the offense’s failures.

Donovan reiterated the lack of experience of his starting 11. He began with the receiving corps, a groups that didn’t feature a consistent wideout with more than one season of experience.

“Just going off of last season, we had a second round [NFL] draft pick at our last school,” said Donovan, alluding to former Vanderbilt wide receiver and current Philadelphia Eagle Jordan Matthews. “We got him 112 catches, so that was easy to figure out.”

Donovan used true freshman receiver Chris Godwin, who played big minutes as the year progressed, as an example. “[He] was playing Delaware high school football at this time last year. Now he’s playing in a big time environment against guys that are 22 and 23 years old.”

“Long story short, we don’t have a true exceptional veteran difference-maker to try to get him the ball,” he said. “So we have to do whatever we have to do each week, wherever we’re healthy or whatever and go from there.”

Passing to those receivers was Christian Hackenberg, who finished with 12 fewer touchdowns and five more interceptions than last season, while regressing in nearly every statistical category. Again, Donovan chalked up Hackenberg’s regression to lack of experience, and different circumstances than in his freshman year. He didn’t, however, put any of the blame on himself.

“Last year he was the young buck, and [the veterans] kind of carried him along,” said Donovan. “He would take the reins and take charge when he needed to take charge, when things were going good or bad.”

This year, Donovan said, Hackenberg’s been frustrated, but — a “competitive son of a gun” — he wants to win. That’s led to some heated emotions.

“There are times where you have to be who you are and show your emotions, but there are times where you have to understand that you’ve got to keep it in check and handle [the emotions], too,” the first-year coordinator added.

Hackenberg’s passion paired with Donovan’s play-calling has led to some mid-game tensities between the two. Donovan prefers to coach from upstairs with a bird’s-eye view of the field like a chess player, but felt it necessary to be on the sideline with the young quarterback. “We’ll do whatever we can to make him feel better,” he said of Hackenberg.

Donovan noted that this year’s struggles will ultimately help both coordinator and quarterback. But even if Hackenberg’s relationship with Donovan is of the tough-love variety, No. 14’s association with his offensive line may be a bit more complex. Before the return of Miles Dieffenbach, the Nittany Lions returned only one player with significant front five experience, tackle Donovan Smith.

Hackenberg was sacked 42 times this season, a Penn State record. Donovan again suggested this was the simple cause of inexperience. After all, an offensive line takes a while to build, he said.

“That’s why you love to have experience. Ideally you hope [offensive linemen] don’t have to play until their redshirt sophomore year, so you can get him a couple of years of learning the system, a couple years to getting bigger and faster,” said Donovan. “It’s such a different game up front, especially for an offensive lineman. It’s like calculus to those guys.”

Penn State was forced to switch several reserve defensive lineman to starters on the offensive trenches. That’s no easy feat. Said Donovan, “It’s a whole new world on that side of the ball.”

All those negatives are sure to produce “noise,” a word James Franklin often mentions, referring to critical press and social media. Both Franklin and Donovan agree that it’s essential to block out the noise, but that ability also only comes with experience.

“A buddy of mine in coaching says, ‘everyone can do your job better than you can,’” Donovan said. “They’re a young group, they’ll get influenced.”

“You’ve got to be able to keep it tight.”

About the Author

Ben Berkman

State College, PA


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