Washington has its next offensive coordinator.
And, no, it’s not Kellen Moore. It’s not Mark Helfrich. It’s not Joe Moorhead or Chip Long or Todd Monken or Steve Sarkisian.
It’s John Donovan. Who’s John Donovan?
The 45-year-old Jacksonville Jaguars assistant coach — who has also served as the offensive coordinator at Penn State (2014-15) and Vanderbilt (2011-13) — will be the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach with the Huskies in 2020, the program announced Friday morning.
“Coach Donovan has a great deal of experience at both the college and NFL levels, learning from a lot of great offensive minds about coaching the kind of aggressive, pro-style offense we want to play here at Washington,” first-year UW coach Jimmy Lake said in a statement. “From my own experience, I know how much a coach can learn and grow by spending significant time in the NFL. I’m excited for him to get to Seattle and get started.”
The back half of that quote seems to indirectly address the fact that Donovan was fired after two seasons as Penn State’s offensive coordinator and tight-ends coach in 2015. That season, the Nittany Lions finished 126th out of 128 teams nationally in third-down conversion percentage (27.57%), 106th in rushing offense (134.15 yards per game), 105th in total offense (348.6 yards per game), 103rd in completion percentage (53.2%), 100th in scoring offense (23.2 points per game) and 99th in red-zone touchdown percentage (54.55%).
Moreover, Penn State’s 20.6 points per game in 2014 ranked 113th nationally and dead last in the Big Ten. The team was also 114th in total offense, averaging 335.3 yards per game.
Of course, Donovan also stepped into a uniquely challenging situation. He inherited significant recruiting sanctions at Penn State, which prohibited the program from signing more than 15 scholarship athletes in 2013 and 20 in 2014. If this were a rowing race, Donovan was trying to win with fewer oars than his fellow boats.
Still, after Joe Moorhead was hired to replace Donovan, Penn State promptly shot up to No. 21 nationally in scoring offense — averaging 37.6 points per game — in 2016. A year later, the Nittany Lions finished sixth in scoring offense (41.1 points per game) and 19th in total offense (460.3 yards per game).
(Ironically, Moorhead is the odds-on favorite to be named the next offensive coordinator at Oregon, according to FootballScoop.)
Now, like Lake said in his statement, four seasons in the NFL can certainly change a coach’s outlook. And much of the hire likely hinges on the “aggressive, pro-style offense” that Lake and Donovan intend to implement at UW.
But it’s also worth noting that Donovan — who hails from River Edge, N.J. — has yet to coach on the West Coast, which means he likely has limited recruiting ties in the region. He’ll have to work quickly to cultivate relationships in the Pac-12 recruiting footprint.
To put it bluntly, Donovan will have plenty to prove when he arrives in Seattle this offseason.
Is he up to the challenge? That remains to be seen.
“I couldn’t be more excited to be a part of such a great university, with unbelievable football tradition, like the University of Washington,” Donovan said in a statement. “Thanks to Coach Lake and everyone involved for this opportunity, and I’m looking forward to getting started. Go Dawgs!”
Donovan agreed to a three-year contract that runs through Jan. 31, 2023, according to a memorandum of understanding provided to The Times by the university. He’s set to make $850,000 in guaranteed compensation in his first year, followed by $875,000 annually in each of the next two. He’ll also receive standard incentives for academic and athletic achievements — including $70,000 for a national championship, $60,000 for a College Football Playoff national championship game appearance, $40,000 for a CFP semifinal appearance, $20,000 for a New Year’s six bowl appearance, $10,000 for an appearance in one of the top two Pac-12 contracted bowl games outside of the New Year’s Six or CFP, or $5,000 for an appearance in any other bowl.
For comparison’s sake, former Husky offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan was scheduled to make $800,000 guaranteed in 2020, had he been retained.
UW athletics director Jen Cohen closed the memorandum of understanding by writing, “I have every confidence that you will lead our football program with integrity and pride, and I look forward to welcoming you as a member of the Husky family.”
That’s a far cry from Jacksonville, where Donovan spent each of the past four seasons. He worked with the Jaguars’ tight ends in 2016, the quarterbacks in 2017 and 2018 and the running backs this season. Prior to that, he was a college offensive coordinator under head coach James Franklin — first at Vanderbilt (2011-13) and then Penn State (2014-15).
“I have been working with John since our time together at Georgia Tech, and it’s been a privilege to see how much he’s grown as a coach over the past 20 years,” Jacksonville Jaguars coach Doug Marrone said in a statement. “He is a diligent worker and has had success coaching offenses in the collegiate ranks at Penn State and Vanderbilt, and I look forward to seeing the impact he makes at Washington.
“I appreciate his time in Jacksonville and how deeply he cares for developing the players he works with, and I wish him, his wife, Stacey, and their family all the best in Seattle.”
At Vanderbilt, Donovan’s offenses notched three of the top-four total yardage marks in school history, capped by a record 4,936 yards in 2012. The 2012 Commodores also averaged 30.1 points per game, becoming the first team in program history to top the 30-point barrier.
Vanderbilt went 24-15 in Donovan’s three seasons as offensive coordinator and running-backs coach, and running back Zac Stacy became the first player in program history with back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. He earned second-team All-SEC honors and was drafted by the Rams in 2012.
However, Donovan’s offensive success didn’t extend to Penn State.
It seems he waited four years for another opportunity. He’ll get it at Washington — with an offense replacing its starting quarterback, running back, tight end, center, left tackle and right tackle. The Huskies defeated Boise State 38-7 in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 21 to cap an 8-5 season, then fired offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Bush Hamdan as well as tight-ends coach Jordan Paopao the following day.
Under Hamdan, the 2019 Huskies ranked 102nd nationally in third-down conversion percentage (35.67%), 84th in rushing offense (147.85 yards per game), 79th in total offense (391.2 yards per game), 78th in yards per carry (4.17), 63rd in red-zone touchdown percentage (61.1%), 62nd in yards per play (5.83), 41st in scoring offense (32.0 points per game), 57th in passing offense (243.4 yards per game), 54th in yards per pass attempt (7.7) and 44th in pass efficiency rating (144.03).
The good news, for both Lake and Donovan, is that Washington’s 2020 recruiting class may already be complete. UW signed a top-15 class last month that included 22 prospective Huskies and eight four-star offensive recruits — three four-star offensive linemen (Myles Murao, Roger Rosengarten and Geirean Hatchett) and two four-star wide receivers (Jalen McMillan and Rome Odunze), as well as four-star quarterback Ethan Garbers, four-star running back Sam Adams II and four-star tight end Mark Redman. The program could potentially add to that haul in February, when four-star tight end Jack Yary makes his college decision.
Besides a tight-ends coach, Lake’s 2020 coaching staff appears to be complete, assuming there won’t be further personnel changes in the coming months.
From 1993 to 1996, Donovan played defensive back at Johns Hopkins, where he recorded 12 career interceptions and seven in 1996 — one short of the school record. After an internship with the Carolina Panthers, his coaching career began as an assistant defensive backs coach at Villanova in 1997. He was a graduate assistant running backs coach at Georgia Tech from 1998 to 2000, before serving as recruiting coordinator (2001-04), running backs coach (2005, 2008-10) and quarterbacks coach (2006-07) in 10 seasons at Maryland from 2001 to 2010.
Donovan earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Johns Hopkins and a master’s in economics from Georgia Tech. He and his wife, Stacey, have three children: son John Patrick, and daughters Cate and Shea.
Soon enough, the Donovan family will settle in Seattle.
It wasn’t the popular hire. But it might just be the right one.
THE JOHN DONOVAN FILE
Year | Team | Position
1997 | Villanova | Defensive backs
1998-2000 | Georgia Tech | Graduate assistant
2001-04 | Maryland | Recruiting coordinator
2005 | Maryland | Running backs
2006-07 | Maryland | Quarterbacks
2008-10 | Maryland | Running backs
2011-13 | Vanderbilt | Offensive coordinator/running backs
2014-15 | Penn State | Offensive coordinator/tight ends
2016 | Jacksonville Jaguars | Offensive assistant/tight ends
2017-18 | Jacksonville Jaguars | Offensive assistant/quarterbacks
2019 | Jacksonville Jaguars | Offensive assistant/ running backs