Sideline Route: PSU OC Remains on the Field

Nittany Lion offensive coordinator John Donovan will stay on the sideline so he can communicate more effectively with QB Christian Hackenberg.

James Franklin on OC John Donovan

The on again, off again relationship between Penn State offensive coordinator John Donovan and the Nittany Lion sideline is back on again.


After Wednesday's practice, PSU coach James Franklin reversed field from comments he made earlier in the week, when he said Donovan would be in the press box for Saturday night's showdown with No. 13 Ohio State at Beaver Stadium.

“John Donovan will probably be on the sideline on Saturday,” Franklin said Wednesday (without being asked a question on the topic). “We had a bunch of conversations today. You guys asked me that earlier in the week, and I said he'd be in the booth. That's probably changed now. So I want to make sure I don't tell you one thing and then something different happens on Saturday.”

Donovan will be on the sideline so he can more easily communicate with sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg. The Nittany Lion staff is trying to jumpstart an offense that ranks next to last in the Big Ten in scoring (21.2 ppg). With a struggling offensive line, strong play by Hackenberg appears to be the lynchpin to any sort of revival

The 19-year-old won Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors last season while playing under then-head coach Bill O'Brien, who doubled as offensive coordinator. O'Brien, now the coach of the NFL's Houston Texans, called plays from the sideline at Penn State.

“Probably one of the biggest things is Hack -- playing as a freshman and Billy calling the plays -- that's something he's comfortable with,” Franklin said. “So having either (QBs coach) Ricky (Rahne) down on the sideline or John down on the sideline with him … a lot of time, once the offense is done, I'm with the defense and I'm with the special teams. He'd like to be able to have somebody making adjustments with him and things like that on the sideline.”

“It really is different than the way we’ve done it in the past. But it has to do with what Hack feels more comfortable with.”

This is the latest turn in what has been a game of musical coaching spots for Donovan. During three seasons as OC under Franklin in Vanderbilt, he was always in the box. But in PSU's 2014 opener against UCF in Ireland, the headsets between the box and field were out, so Donovan spent the first half on the field. He was back in the box for the second half.

That remained his perch through a Sept. 27 loss to Northwestern. But when the Lion offense struggled and managed only a pair of field goals vs. the Wildcats -- and Hackenberg was held without a passing TD for the third straight game -- Franklin decided to change things up during the bye week that followed.

So for an Oct. 11 road game at Michigan, Donovan was on the sideline. It didn't seem to help, as Hackenberg was sacked six times and limited to a season-low 160 passing yards. There was also confusion between Donovan and Franklin over whether to kick a field goal or attempt to make a fourth-down conversion in the first half, causing the staff to burn a timeout. State lost the game, 18-13, and did not score in the second half.

At his Tuesday press conference, Franklin indicated Donovan would head back to the press box for OSU because it eliminated a step of communication in the play-calling process -- he would be able to clearly see down and distance himself.

But getting Hackenberg back into a comfort zone on the sideline trumped that. It seems the least the staff can do for a passer who has already been sacked 20 times this season.

“It really is different than the way we've done it in the past,” Franklin said. “But it has to do with what Hack feels more comfortable with.”

Rahne will remain in the press box, and will work to quickly relay down-and-distance, hash location and other pertinent information to Donovan. Donovan will then call the next play. The fine details were worked out in a meeting earlier Wednesday.

“Ricky will have a little bit more on his plate, but he's already done a lot of those things,” Franklin said. “So basically, instead of Ricky talking to (Donovan) -- sitting next to each other -- he's gonna give him the information right from the beginning, and then John's gonna go from there.”

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