Last Year’s Struggles Are Last Year’s Problem For John Donovan’s Offense
John Donovan hasn’t had many chances to speak for himself. Save for 2014’s preseason media day and a pre-Pinstripe Bowl press conference, Penn State’s offensive coordinator was silent for the Nittany Lions’ 6-6 regular season struggle. It was a stretch that saw Penn State’s attacking side falter behind an oft-incompetent offensive line, a quarterback with a sophomoric case of the slumps, and a silent running game. In the midst of all this stood Donovan, who at times was televised in heated confrontations with his prized quarterback, and whose head-scratching third-and-long screen passes left more than a few supporters fuming.
Enter 2015. Donovan, beginning his second year under James Franklin, didn’t really address last year’s struggles at last week’s preseason media day, and elected instead to further an established coaching platitude: He’s going to trust his process, and take things one step at a time.
For instance, addressing a chip on his shoulder, count the cliches:
“I think you always got to have a chip on your shoulder. You know, you believe in what you’ve done. We’ve had some success. I think that, like every other year, it’s a new year. We’ll find out what happens as we go forward here. But I believe deep down in my heart and soul that we’ve got a chance to be really good, and that’s what I know right now, and that’s the way I’m going to approach it, and that’s the way our guys should approach it, and that’s the way we’ve got to approach it each day. It’s not going to happen overnight, but if we take that approach each day and attack each day with that mentality, we’ll like where we’ll get to. But it just won’t happen by thinking about it. You’ve got to get up and attack that day and do the best you can that day, you go to bed, you learn from it and you do the same thing the next day, and I think it’ll work out.”
Donovan, however, wasn’t grilled too much on last year’s struggles, but in answering a question about communication issues in his unit last year, continued a disturbing theme from his Pinstripe Bowl press conference by failing to acknowledge his role in those problems.
“I think those guys take it as a challenge,” he said of overcoming communication issues. “They’re tired of hearing it, and they want to go out and prove what they can do.”
But as for Donovan? Who knows.
Maybe it really is just a question of time. Franklin hinted at great progress — especially in the receiving corps — from the first year to the buildup of the second year in Donovan’s system. DaeSean Hamilton, who set all sorts of school freshman receiving records, returns, along with nearly all primary ball-catchers. It’s a group that includes Geno Lewis, Saeed Blacknall, and Chris Godwin — an explosive bunch more than capable of providing a handful of downfield options for Christian Hackenberg on any given play.
“I know the guys that have played in this system and have gone on to the next level, have been in a room with somebody else that say, you know what, this guy doesn’t have a clue, so sometimes it takes a little time,” Donovan said. “We put a lot on our guys, but once you know what you’re doing and you can think fast and operate in it, it helps. Sometimes it takes a little time. We’ll find that out. I think we’ve got a chance to do some things this year.”
Donovan also hyped Akeel Lynch — “I can’t wait to see him play this year. I cannot wait.” — whose presence as the featured back behind a now-seasoned offensive line will be a welcomed change from last year. A reliable running game will undeniably ease Donovan’s job, but should Lynch not meet his expectations, or should the offensive line show little improvement, two redshirt freshmen backs with hardly any experience will be thrust into the spotlight.
Last year saw Donovan bouncing up and down between the field and the coordinators box, an effort to compromise his preference of the box’s chess-like bird’s-eye view with an apparent need to work with Hackenberg on the sideline. Last week, Donovan said he’s “most likely” going to be on the field this season to call plays.
If it were up to Donovan, last year’s struggles are last year’s problems, a truth echoed in his answers at media day and his repeated insistence to trust his system. The cards on the table for a successful offensive campaign. Now it’s time for Donovan to stay quiet and let his system do the talking.
“I do think once you learn our system and you’re able to think fast, you play fast,” he said. “I think that because of that, we’re going to see a difference.”