Donovan Addresses Offensive Issues

Penn State’s first-year coordinator met the press for the first time this season at the team’s Pinstripe Bowl Media Day Saturday.

Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg was not available when the Nittany Lions held their pre-Pinstripe Bowl Media Day on Saturday in Beaver Stadium. Family event, sports information director Jeff Nelson said.

The offense as a whole has been MIA much of the season, for a laundry list of reasons. There was inexperience along the offensive front and at wide receiver. The scheme did not appear to fit the personnel. And so on.

Take one from Column A, one from Column B. And do not waste any time guessing the menu option of offensive coordinator John Donovan.

Donovan kicked off his first media briefing since the preseason by saying the following: “Every time you go somewhere new or you do something new … you fully don't understand the job you're in sometimes until you have a full-year circle of doing it.”

Then he made the expected right turn and talked at length about how inexperienced his group was, especially at the skill positions.

“We don't have a surefire first-, second-round pick now,” he said. “Will they eventually be? Hopefully, they'll grow into that, some of those guys.”

(Never mind that Hackenberg was viewed in that light after excelling under Bill O'Brien in 2013. Now, who knows?)

Donovan, at any rate, was now on a roll. He noted that the Lions lost standout wide receiver Allen Robinson to the NFL after last season. He mentioned that the 19-year-old Hackenberg is still young, something discussed only in a positive light before this fall. And Donovan talked about how tough it is for a new offensive lineman to get up to speed -- much less four of them, as the Lions had this season.

“It's like calculus for those guys,” he said. “It's very intricate, the defenses and what they do.”

Lots of things to think about, he said.

“Long story short, we don't have a true, exceptional, veteran difference-maker to try to get him the ball,” he said, “so we've got to do whatever we've got to do, per defense, per week, wherever we're healthy or who's playing and go from there.”

When that quote was tweeted out, senior tailback Bill Belton was quick to retweet it. And junior tight end Jesse James favorited it. Make of that what you will.

Yes, youth was a factor in the Lions' 6-6 regular-season finish. But was that the only reason for all the ugly numbers they lug into the Dec. 27 bowl meeting with Boston College? Was it simply that?

They are 112th in the nation in scoring (19.8 ppg), 114th in total offense (325.5 ypg), 117th in rushing offense (103.6) and 118th in passing efficiency (104.11 rating).

Shouldn't some of the blame fall on the new staff? Didn't head coach James Franklin, Donovan and Co. fail to maximize the greatest single offensive asset available to them (i.e., Hackenberg)? Did they not try to fit too many square pegs into round holes (as when they attempted to transform tight ends more adept at pass-catching into blockers)? And while the Wildcat showed signs of life late in the season, is that not an outmoded strategy?

Again, there are a lot of things to consider.

“You're frustrated when come up with a plan, you come up with a game plan, you come up with things to do and execute and you don't do them to the fullest extent,” said Donovan, who followed Franklin from Vanderbilt to PSU in January. “That's the nature of anything you do. Absolutely. The bottom line, we had two games (Maryland and Illinois) where we could have put the game away and we didn't on our last possession. We do that, we're sitting here at 8-4 and maybe it's not as big a deal.”

But as he quickly added, they did not. And it is.

Hackenberg showed his frustration at times, screaming at Donovan on the sideline or yelling into a phone to the coaches in the press box. Donovan called the QB “a competitive son of a gun” and once more noted how young he is, and how Hackenberg and James were the only two returning guys who started every game last year.

Donovan also made a point about decorum. The camera is always on Hackenberg, he said, and he has to keep his emotions in check.

Another lesson learned. One of many.

“This season for a lot of guys, including myself, including (Hackenberg), is going to help him tremendously as he goes forward, because as we all know -- and Coach Franklin always says -- life's not easy,” Donovan said. “When you have to go through tough times and tough experiences, you've got to fight through it. We had to fight through some stuff this year, and that's the bottom line. When you're able to draw from those experiences as you move forward, the competitive guy in you is going to want to work to get the good experiences. That's going to happen next year, as we go on.”

But right now there is only frustration. That, and plenty of blame to go around.

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