Anyone wondering how long it would take Penn State coach James Franklin to make changes to his staff following the 2015 season did not have to wait much. In fact, they didn’t even have to wait until the actual end of the season.
Despite still having a bowl game (to be announced) on the schedule, Franklin made a significant move Sunday when he fired beleaguered offensive coordinator and tight ends coach John Donovan. This came less than a day after the Nittany Lions ended their regular season with a blowout loss (55-16) at No. 5 Michigan State.
The PSU offense never did get going in two seasons under Donovan. Despite being led by NFL prospect Christian Hackenberg at quarterback — not to mention getting outstanding production from freshman tailback Saquon Barkley and sophomore receiver Chris Godwin — the Lions will enter the bowl ranked last in the Big Ten in scoring offense, total offense and rushing offense.
The tight ends, who had become such a weapon in two seasons under Bill O’Brien, have all but disappeared from the offensive attack. In fact, top TEs Kyle Carter and Mike Gesicki, who have combined for only 26 catches and one TD this year, have become more known for their drops and mistakes.
That was never more evident than Saturday, when Carter’s second-quarter fumble was returned 77 yards for a touchdown by Spartan Demetrious Cox. PSU appeared to be going in for a score at the time, but instead found itself trailing 20-3 shortly before the half.
In 2014, Penn State finished last in the Big Ten in scoring offense and rushing offense, and next to last in total offense.
Donovan had served as Franklin’s offensive coordinator for three years at Vanderbilt then two years at PSU. But, unlike most of the coaches on Franklin’s staff, he seemed to lack a dynamic public personality. He was especially uncomfortable in the rare instances he was made available to the media.
Meanwhile, as the PSU offense struggled in 2014, Donovan alternated between coaching from the press box and on the sideline, as he tried to find a comfort level with Hackenberg. But it never really came.
Donovan spent the entire 2015 season in the press box.
This season started out on a particularly bad note for the PSU offense as Hackenberg was sacked 10 times in a 27-10 loss at Temple. After that game, Franklin said he would take a more active role in the offensive play-calling.
It helped against the lesser teams on the schedule, but not once the level of competition picked up in the second half of the season. Against the five opponents that are currently ranked, PSU scored a total of 73 points, or 14.6 per game.
In fairness to Donovan, he inherited a mess along the offensive line, as years of poor recruiting and then NCAA sanctions impacted that area more than any other in the program. By the same token, it is difficult to see where any of the many offensive linemen who have logged significant snaps in 2014 and 2015 have improved from one year to the next.
It is unclear who will serve as offensive coordinator in the bowl game.
Franklin said a national search is underway to find Donovan’s replacement.