Editor’s note:UW’s season opener Saturday at Cal has been canceled and declared a no contest after a Cal player tested positive for COVID-19. This story was written prior to the cancellation of the game.
We are still awaiting one of the two most important decisions Jimmy Lake will make as the Huskies’ coach. That will come when he selects his go-to quarterback, which might come when Washington meets Cal on Saturday, or possibly later if none separates himself from the pack.
But the other critical choice — one that might end up defining Lake’s tenure at Washington — came in January, when he picked John Donovan as his offensive coordinator.
In terms of splash, that hire was akin to a pigeon jumping into a puddle. Donovan’s name didn’t ring out the way other candidates did. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything — the same was true of Washington men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins, who ended the Huskies’ NCAA tournament drought in his second season.
But it’s still worth asking: What do we know about this guy?
Well, for starters, he was awesome as the OC at Vanderbilt. Under Donovan’s direction from 2011-13, the Commodores had three of the top four season-yardage marks in school history. They scored a school-record 30 points per game in 2012. They broke that record with 30.1 in 2013.
It’s always hard to determine how much credit the OC deserves when the coach (in that case, James Franklin) is also offensive-minded, but Donovan certainly didn’t screw it up. But then came his stint at Penn State — where he was anything but awesome. At least that was the perception.
When Donovan served as OC under Franklin in 2014, the Nittany Lions finished 2-6 in the Big Ten and averaged just 14 points in conference games. Donovan was fired in November the next season, when Penn State finished 4-4 in conference and lost its final three Big Ten games.
Again, who knows where the blame should go when Franklin is an offensive coach. It’s similar to chastising the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator for a poor showing when it is clearly Pete Carroll’s D.
Except the next year, when Joe Moorhead replaced Donovan as OC, Penn State won the Big Ten and scored 37.6 points per game.
How should Husky fans feel about this? When Oregon snagged Moorhead, the man who revived Penn State’s offense, and Washington got Donovan, the man who oversaw its demise, should they be worried?
Again, it’s hard to say. Remember, before Carroll went to USC his list of achievements was relatively undistinguished. He went 6-10 in his lone season as the coach of the Jets. And he went 27-21 in three seasons in New England before his firing. Then he won a national championship with the Trojans and a Super Bowl with the Seahawks.
Sometimes you can wow with an interview or build a reputation via word of mouth. It’s quite possible Donovan has done that. But given that his last job was assistant running-backs coach for the Jaguars, it’s OK to wonder just how effective he’ll be on Montlake.
Last month Donovan was asked about his approach to the offense and how it was coming along. Specifics, perhaps by design, were lacking.
“We gotta be able to function efficiently, and in order to do that you have to be able to think fast and process the information, and when you have the ability to make plays you gotta be able to do that,” Donovan said. “You gotta hear and see the call, you gotta know the call, and then you gotta do your job. That’s what we’re pounding home right now.”
Donovan’s predecessor at Washington, Bush Hamdan, was maligned last year at UW, as the Huskies struggled to score. But considering then-coach Chris Petersen was the mastermind of the offense, much of that criticism was misplaced.
If Washington’s points problems carry over to this year, though, there will be no other place to look on the coaching staff but Donovan. Lake is a defensive guru who came up on that side of the ball. He has staked his claim on a relative unknown.
Potential genius move? Maybe. But for now, the burden of proof is on Donovan.