Donovan confident despite frustrating season

UNIVERSITY PARK – Offensive coordinator John Donovan is a really bright guy – with a sociology degree from Johns Hopkins and a master’s in economics from Georgia Tech – so you’d better believe he’s keenly aware of what many Penn State fans think of him as one of the worst offensive seasons in recent program history winds down.

As badly as the offense has played, it doesn’t appear to have shaken Donovan’s confidence. He hasn’t spoken to the media all season, so there was no way to probe his thoughts on exactly what went wrong, but Saturday we finally heard from Donovan at PSU’s bowl media day.

He knew the grilling that was coming, too, and even playfully took advantage of a few seconds of silence until the microphone made its way into the crowd of reporters.

“I’m sure there’s no questions, so if you want me to leave, I’ll leave,” he said with a smile.

To summarize Donovan’s thoughts and his tone as being arrogant during his 15-minute news conference isn’t quite fair. How could he be arrogant, after all, with an offense that didn’t score 20 points in regulation one time in eight Big Ten games?

But if anyone listening closely and parsing Donovan’s matter-of-fact words had expected to hear some sort of mea culpa or level of personal blame for PSU’s immense problems, they would have been disappointed.

Donovan, like basically every coach in a tough-guy sport such as football, is nothing if not self-assured.

Even when he’s basically been the team’s biggest lightning rod for criticism all season.

“It’s like a buddy of mine in coaching says: ‘Everyone can do your job better than you can,'” Donovan said at one point.

He’s frustrated. Of course he is. The offense probably peaked in week one when Christian Hackenberg threw for 454 yards against Central Florida, it got worse from there and became abysmal down the stretch.

“It’s natural, absolutely,” he said of the frustration that grew. “You’re frustrated when you 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. That’s the nature of anything you do.”

Donovan also made sure to mention one important thing in his defense.

“Every time you go somewhere new or do something new you don’t fully understand the job you’re in sometimes until you have a year, full year circle of doing it.”

That’s Donovan’s way of relaying this simple message to Penn State fans: Give me more time.

There are many legitimate reasons the offense struggled this season. The line was a mess for two-thirds of the year, the receivers couldn’t get open the final third of the year and Hackenberg became so gun shy after being a punching bag all season that he became a shell of the guy everyone expected to see.

So in all fairness, this extremely disappointing offense is not entirely Donovan’s fault.

But this much is clear: Donovan inherited a guy in Hackenberg known as a terrific dropback passer and tried to squeeze a square peg into a round hole by forcing him to run a system designed for a dual-threat quarterback.

Donovan wasn’t asked Saturday about playcalling, which has been one of the biggest criticisms aimed at him. He wasn’t asked to try and explain exactly why Hackenberg struggled so much during his sophomore slump.

Donovan did, however, bring up one very interesting point about the young players on the team. He said they can get “influenced by some things,” and later there was a follow-up about what he meant.

“You can control the room all you want, but all you guys in here, too, you have all your opinions,” he said of the media.

Clearly, he was talking about outside criticisms of the offense from reporters and fans on social media interfering with what the coaches were trying to accomplish with the players.

“When you’re young and you’re a kid – some of these kids are kids, true freshmen and whatnot – so they’re going to get influenced in some regard,” he said. “It’s a learning experience for them as they go forward. So that’s all I meant.

“We could sugarcoat it all you want. But social media these days, they’re on Twitter, they read stuff, they get messages and you know they get their friends telling them, their parents telling them or whatever it might be.”

One of the strangest things the PSU coaches did this season was send Donovan down to the sideline for games when he himself has said he’s more comfortable up in the press box.

The move – made in midseason and bizarrely one day after coach James Franklin flat out said Donovan would be upstairs because that’s where he’s comfortable – was done to appease Hackenberg, who likes to have someone on the sideline to talk to, like he did when Bill O’Brien was coach.

While understandable to a degree, the view here is that Donovan or Franklin or whoever made the ultimate decision did the offense a disservice trying to keep one guy happy instead of looking out for what’s best for the entire unit.

“It’s a fine line,” Donovan said of the sideline-press box balance. “I say it’s always like playing chess, you don’t play it by playing eye level but by looking down. It’s obvious to see stuff. The one thing that I miss being upstairs is that you kind of see the progression of the game. You kind of see the story of the game as it unfolds a little bit and what they’re trying to do and whatnot.”

If an offensive coordinator prefers to be upstairs, he should be upstairs. That’s his comfort zone. That’s where he feels like he does his best work.

“But the bottom line,” Donovan said, “is we need (Hackenberg) to play as well as he can, and if that’s going to make him feel better, we’ll do whatever we can to make him feel better, get his mojo right and go from there.”

But the move didn’t make Hackenberg play better. Even as the offensive line improved later in the season, the quarterback got worse.

There’s no easy way to evaluate Donovan’s work this season. From the questionable playcalling to the simplicity of the offensive schemes to the lack of adjustments, it’s easy to point a finger in one direction, when in reality it would take most of the fingers on two hands to point out all of the inter-connected issues.

The only absolute I can point to is this, and it’s echoing what Donovan said Saturday: It will take another year – with a lot of different and most likely better circumstances – before we can truly judge if John Donovan is the right fit as Penn State’s offensive coordinator.

Maybe next season will be a lot better, and much of the criticism aimed at Donovan will subside.

However, if we see a repeat of all this mess next season and Hackenberg continues to struggle, then Franklin could be left with no choice but to re-evaluate the entire offense and who’s in charge of it.

Cory Giger is the host of “Sports Central” from 4 to 6 p.m. daily on ESPN Radio 1430 WVAM. Reach him at 949-7031 or @CoryGiger on Twitter.