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Penn State Football: John Donovan and the Economics of the Nittany Lion Offense

by on May 25, 2014 9:00 PM

John Donovan holds a master’s degree in economics from Georgia Tech.

Which makes him uniquely qualified to be Penn State’s new offensive coordinator. Especially in 2014.

Really. Here’s why:

 “The most concise, non-abusive, definition of economics,” reports, “is the study of how society uses its scarce resources.”

The emphasis on scarce resources is mine. But if you know a thing or two about the current state of the State offense, Donovan may be a bit italicized by the situation as well.

(The non-abusive part? Well, clearly after 18 years of coaching Donovan knows that outcome-based pursuits like economics study and football play-calling can both be maddening. Perhaps that’s why he appears so preternaturally calm – on the outside, at least.)

As for scarcity, at Penn State that specifically refers to the mix-and-match, hit-and-miss offensive line, the TJ Maxx of the Nittany Lions’ position groups that at the end of the Blue-White Game had a third-team center playing first-team guard. It also applies to the wide receiver position, where Penn State’s returning players caught just 14.52% of the team’s passes and 14.28% of its touchdowns last season. Plus, there's still the minus of the reduced number of scholarship players on the Penn State roster.

Now you know why Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle dubbed economics “the dismal science.” Not exactly the ideal pursuit, one would think, of the man designated to choreograph the offense for the only man in college football happier than Pharrell Williams.

Of course, Donovan also has the wealth that comes with an elite quarterback in Christian Hackenberg; an abundance of very good running backs in Zach Zwinak, Bill Belton and Akeel Lynch; and a tight end triumvirate of Kyle Carter, Jesse James and Adam Breneman.


The 39-year-old Donovan is the man to make it all work for The Man. Donovan and James Franklin have worked together for nearly a dozen years, from Maryland to Vanderbilt to Penn State. Franklin trusts Donovan implicitly, allowing him to run the Vandy offense the past three seasons from beginning to end, from game-planning to calling all the plays on game day. The result? A 24-15 record, the SEC’s all-time leading receiver in Jordan Matthews, consecutive 1,100-yard rushing seasons for Zac Stacy and 30 points per game the past two years. (Vandy averaged 16.6 points the two seasons prior to his arrival.)

The coaches' roles are well-defined. Donovan thinks third and 5 from his 37 with 4:23 to go in the third quarter, down 23-17, driving into the wind and Franklin thinks…

“Big picture – there are some things I’ll ask and question and ask why to make sure we are sound and things like that,” Franklin said in D.C. a few weeks ago. “We have great coaches, so there is not a lot of that I have to do. But I will ask a question from time to time when I think I need to.”

Thirteen days later, in Wilkes-Barre for the Coaches Caravan, Donovan gave a glimpse in the economist’s mind as he prepares the Nittany Lions’ offense for the 2014 season. Since the Blue-White Game, he’s been minding his P’s and Q’s and shifting around his X’s and O’s, while balancing duties as tight ends coach, recruiter, coordinator and boss. Donovan has the offensive staff’s Small Picture figured out for the next three months.

“I’ve already laid what we’re doing the rest of May, June and July, when we’re in there and on what days we’re doing what,” Donovan said. “Once August comes, you better be ready because then it’s going to be non-stop. We’ll be in the thick of camp and all that stuff, so you’ve got to get a lot done before then.”

That planning is based around an offensive identity that began to emerge by the end of spring drills. Donovan and Franklin saw enough in 15 days of practice to get a handle on what the Penn State offense can handle this fall, no matter who’s the X and who’s the O.

“I think we have our base stuff down,” Donovan said. “We have a good idea of what we have. Do we have a great idea of what we’re going to do a majority of the time? No, probably not. I think that’s the beauty of having a lot of different positions and a lot of different personnel.

“If you can be unpredictable from week-to-week, that gives you an advantage. But if you do something really well and you do it consistently even though they know you’re doing it, you roll with it. I think we’ve done a good job considering where we’ve been. We have our base stuff and we do certain things over it each week. But we get fairly creative as far as how we present it each week.”


For Penn State’s passing game, a big chunk – the biggest, perhaps – of that creativity will be based on Geno Lewis. The Nittany Lion sophomore wide receiver is from Wilkes-Barre, where his Wyoming Valley High School is a 10 minute drive from Genetti’s, where Donovan and Co. stopped on the caravan last week.

Lewis had 18 receptions for 234 yards, for a 13.0-yard average, with three touchdowns in 2013. He wasn’t used very economically, though, as 14 of those grabs came in four games. Lewis came up big in the season finale against Wisconsin, however, catching three Hackenberg passes for 92 yards and two TDs. The A-to-Z list of other Nittany Lion wide receivers that had a catch in 2013 and are back in 2014 is a short one, including only sophomore Richy Anderson (13-136, 10.5) and junior Matt Zanellato (4-53, 13.2). Neither caught a TD pass.

“Geno is a great kid. He’s an awesome kid,” Donovan said. “He has great leaping ability, great hands. Those are the two things that stand out as far as him playing. He catches everything. He can go up and get it strong. He’s got to have a good year for us. He’s one of the guys we’re counting on, that’s for darn sure.”

Donovan is also doing some counting with the offensive line – which faces injury, depth and inexperience issues. He’s not sure who he or O-line coach Herb Hand will be able to count on when the season opens Aug. 30 vs. Central Florida in Dublin, Ireland.

“Well, you’ve got to play with five, that’s for sure,” Donovan deadpanned. “As far as a group and who’s going to be where, we might not know just yet. Some other positions might be a little bit easier to figure out. As far as that position goes, we have an idea, based off of what we saw, of what we’re probably going to be able to do. Who’s going to actually be doing it, we’re maybe not sure yet.”

Sounds like it may take some voodoo … economics.

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Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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