Penn State OC Donovan Understands Scrutiny

But he believes the Nittany Lions will field a better attack in 2015, now that everyone is more familiar with the system.

James Franklin on the PSU offensive line and QB Christian Hackenberg.

By the time Penn State offensive coordinator John Donovan arrived at the Lancaster County Convention Center on Tuesday night, the expected crowd had long been gathered outside a ballroom on the second floor of the place, for the second stop on the school's Coaches Caravan.

It is one more reminder of the interest the football program generates, something that surely goes above and beyond anything the current coaching staff experienced at Vanderbilt, its previous stop.

Or a great many other places, for that matter.

Head coach James Franklin, the featured attraction at this and every other stop on the tour, had discussed that a little earlier in the evening -- how the attention was particularly pronounced in his case, since he grew up in Pennsylvania. How friends he hadn't spoken with in 25 years came out of the woodwork following his hire in January 2014, wanting tickets and who-knows-what.

“It's different,” he said. “It had become a bigger deal at the last place, but it's definitely different here.”

Also a challenge, he added, to keep everyone happy while preserving time for himself and his family.

“More than anything,” he said, “you just embrace it.”

As well he should, though interest breeds scrutiny. Donovan knows all about that, given the Lions' struggles on that side of the ball last season.

“You're your own worst critic, so when you're not successful it hurts,” he said. “Every time you lose, it crushes you. That's just the way I've been since I've been a kid on up. … Every time you win you're happy, but you're more relieved. And any time you lose it's never good. And just now being in this profession for a lot of years, you know what the deal is. If you're not successful, if you don't do as well as you want to do, you know the ramifications that come about.”

He expects the offense to be better in his second season on the job, and really, it can't be much worse than it was last year. In finishing 7-6, the Lions were 108th among the nation's 125 major-college teams in passing efficiency (109.41 rating), 110th in scoring (20.6 ppg), 111th in yards per game (335.3) and 117th in rushing yards per game (111.9). The line allowed a school-record 44 sacks. The runners averaged 2.9 yards per carry.

And on and on.

Experience should help, Donovan said. There is greater familiarity all around -- between the coaches and the players, the players and the system and the players and each other. And while the focus remains on improving the line, he mentioned another factor that he believes in retrospect might have contributed to the offense's struggles -- the staff's too-much, too-soon approach.

As he put it, “Our offensive staff has been together four years (including three at Vandy), and we've had a pretty good run. Maybe we were a little ahead of ourselves trying to do things that everybody else was doing for the first time around.”

Just one more thing to consider.

“Obviously we have a lot of things that we can get better at,” he said. “There's some things we did well, but I think that was one thing, looking back at it possibly, that you just (say), 'All right, we've been together four years, but everybody's just been here for a year, so what can we learn from what we did this past year and get better going forward?' ”

So the idea now is to keep it simple -- to get better at those things the offense attempted to do last fall.

“That was the emphasis in the spring a little bit -- just get back to basics and do what we already know,” Donovan said. “The guys have been here now a spring, a fall, now a spring, which helps. It's their third time going through the installation, so it should help. Hopefully it will, come fall.”

Asked what, exactly, the identity of a Donovan-coached offense might be, he said, “Ultimately we want to get our best players the ball.”

At Vanderbilt, the staff rode two future pros, running back Zac Stacy (now with the Jets) and wide receiver Jordan Matthews (now with the Eagles).

“I don't know if we have one dynamic guy right now that is like that,” Donovan said. “I think we've got a good mix of guys.”

He noted that bellwethers like Stacy and Matthews tend to be older guys, with plenty of games under their belts. In contrast he pointed out that PSU's top receivers -- DaeSean Hamilton, Geno Lewis, Saeed Blacknall and Chris Godwin -- are still relatively young.

“I think in time those guys are going to be really, really good,” Donovan said, apparently believing that Hamilton, for one, can be even better than he was in leading the Big Ten in receptions last year. “I'm talking about a couple years. Everyone's talking about this year. That's awesome: Can't wait for this year and whatnot, except they have a lot more years to play, too. Just imagine how much better they're going to be, three years from now.”

And what of the present?

“We'll see what happens,” he said. “I think we have a good group of guys, and hopefully that will continue over to summer, and we'll see if one guy emerges, if two guys emerge that we can lean on heavily.”

But back to the line for a moment. It lost its two most experienced players, tackle Donovan Smith, a second-round pick of Tampa Bay in last week's NFL draft, and guard Miles Dieffenbach, who signed with his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers as a free agent.

“The good thing is you've got some guys who have been through it,” Donovan said.

Guys like center/guard Angelo Mangiro, tackle Andrew Nelson and guards Brendan Mahon, Brian Gaia and Derek Dowrey.

The idea, then, is for them to bring along newcomers like junior-college transfer Paris Palmer. While he struggled as the first-string left tackle in the Blue-White Game, Palmer made impressive strides over the course of the spring, Donovan said, especially considering the fact that he was starting at Square One.

“He's got the ability,” Donovan said. “We've got to be able to get our best five out there, whatever combination that is. He's got a chance to be in that mix. If he's not, we'll figure it out.”

His hope is that quarterback Christian Hackenberg does the same, after a tough year in 2014. Donovan said the QB's struggles were partially due to the new system, partially due to the leaky line.

“You can be as good as you want to be in football,” Donovan said. “Ultimately it's a team sport, and everybody's got to be able to execute around you. … There were other things that he could have done better, obviously, and he's his own worst critic.”

Which, again, is how Donovan describes himself. And how he deals with scrutiny from the outside.

“You've got to rely on your work ethic and the people around you and just trust in your abilities and what you've done,” he said. “We've had a pretty good run, so hopefully we'll be able to get back on track here and go.”

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