He had heard the phrase all the time growing up in New Jersey. When he was coaching at Maryland, he couldn’t get away from it.
The term “Penn State kid” has been in John Donovan’s ears for most of his life.
“Everywhere, you always heard about ‘Penn State kids,’ ” the Nittany Lions’ new offensive coordinator said. “He’s a good kid, he’s tough, he’s smart — that was kind of the consensus of a Penn State kid. … I would hear that a lot.”
When he was an assistant for the Terrapins, hearing it usually meant another recruiting battle lost.
“Oh, I hated it,” Donovan said with a laugh. “It’d be, ‘Yeah, he’s a Penn State kid.’
“All right. I’ll seeya later.”
A football coach for his entire adult life, Donovan is now on the other side of that equation. And because of it, he’s about to face a spotlight like few others in Pennsylvania.
At most every stage of his first year in Happy Valley, Donovan is going to draw comparisons to former Lions coach Bill O’Brien, now that he has the keys to Christian Hackenberg and the Penn State offense.
Donovan is just happy for the opportunity.
Sitting down for an interview when he stopped in Wilkes-Barre during Penn State’s Coaches Caravan, Donovan’s enthusiasm for his new post was on display.
The man himself is still something of an unknown to Penn State fans. He doesn’t have the over-the-top energy of his boss, James Franklin. He doesn’t have a prolific social media presence like O-line coach Herb Hand. Or a snazzy nickname like D-line coach Sean Spencer, aka “Coach Chaos.”
That’s just fine with Donovan.
“Probably the most important advice I got as a coach was to just be yourself,” Donovan said. “I mean, you can act like a guy’s best buddy when you’re recruiting him. But then when he comes on campus and you’re all business, he’s going to say, ‘What’s going on?’ You’re going to lose him.
“Maybe I’m reserved. But when I do get excited — and I do when I’m talking about (Penn State) — it really stands out.”
Indeed, Donovan’s tone picks up when discussing his new home and employer.
The Johns Hopkins grad has recruited New Jersey in the past while working with Franklin at both Maryland and Vanderbilt. It wasn’t the most fruitful of grounds when he was with the Commodores.
The reception he got could sometimes be lukewarm, and Donovan said they had just one player from Jersey on the team in his three years in Nashville.
“It’s different. Oh, yeah,” Donovan said. “(At Vanderbilt), we’d come up in the spring maybe and get a gauge on a kid and feel him out. But it didn’t last, didn’t last — whatever, we’d move on.
“But when I came back here for the first time in January and going to these schools, all the guys are so happy for you. They’re fired up. They’re fired up to see you, they’re happy for you. ‘Yeah! You’re at Penn State!’ You know? It was different.”
It’s not the only thing about to be different for Donovan. From the very first game in Dublin, Donovan’s offense is going to be compared to O’Brien’s offense. People inevitably will track Hackenberg’s progress in the 2014 offense to the scheme from last year.
What some may not know is that O’Brien and Donovan are friends, having been on staff at Georgia Tech and Maryland together, with both strongly influenced by former Terps coach Ralph Friedgen.
Though Franklin, another former Friedgen assistant, said he reserves the right to change things up, it sounds like the status quo will carry over and Donovan will keep play-calling duties.
“More likely than not, that will be John’s role,” Franklin said. “John called every single play over the last three years at Vanderbilt. I did have recommendations and I did have input, but John called every single play. So we’ll see how that evolves.”
As for the offense itself, there’s only so much that can be installed during a few weeks during the spring — especially when the coaches and players are just getting acquainted with one another.
The real heavy lifting will begin when the first preseason practice opens on Aug. 4.
Donovan gave a laugh when asked about the healthy dose of the wildcat that the offense showed during the Blue-White Game, amused at the attention that got.
Needless to say, the snaps are going to be going to Hackenberg more times than not.
“You have your base system, your base formations, your base plays, your base terminology,” Donovan said of the initial import of the Commodores playbook. “But then you figure out who you have and what you might be able to do with the parts you have. That’s what we’ve been formulating an opinion on as spring went on.”
Hackenberg had been in a tough situation. The Freshman All-American had developed a tight bond with O’Brien, flourishing under his coaching.
Rather than pout about O’Brien’s sudden departure, however, Hackenberg has dedicated himself to picking up the new scheme as quickly as possible.
“I just really tried to indulge myself in the offense and understand all the aspects of it,” Hackenberg said. “It’s a new one, and I was really excited about the new opportunity for myself.
“It’s a bit different, but a lot of things translate to us — some things are similar but others are different. I personally enjoy it. I think it’s a good offense for what we have, and we’re going to get the ball to the playmakers.”
The biggest challenge for Donovan is making sure Hackenberg actually has time to get the ball to those playmakers.
There’s little dispute that the Lions’ biggest concern headed into camp is up front. Piecing together a cohesive offensive line will be an early challenge, and one that Donovan and the staff must account for when building the new offense.
“Well, you’ve gotta play with five, that’s for sure,” Donovan said with a laugh. “Gotta find at least five.”
That sums up the situation pretty well. Left tackle Donovan Smith is the only healthy returning starter.
Projected starters Angelo Mangiro (center) and Andrew Nelson (right tackle) were both banged up in the spring. The Lions used two converted defensive tackles — Derek Dowrey and Brian Gaia — at guard in the Blue-White Game with Miles Dieffenbach out with a knee injury.
There may be more tinkering still to be done. Regardless, it figures to be a work in progress for Donovan into the start of the season.
“Yeah, that’s something… as far as a group — who we’re gonna be and who’s gonna be where — we might not know just yet,” Donovan said. “Some other positions might be a little easier to figure out. As far as that position goes, we have an idea, based off of what we saw, what we’re probably going to be able to do.
“Now, who’s going to actually be doing it? We’re maybe not sure yet.”
On the other end of the spectrum, Donovan has a great deal of flexibility because of the depth and talent he has at tight end. Aside from being the offensive coordinator, Donovan is also serving as the tight ends coach.
Jesse James, Kyle Carter and Adam Breneman are already established weapons. Brent Wilkerson, coming off of injury, will join that group along with incoming freshman Mike Gesicki, one of the top tight end recruits in the country this past cycle.
All of it is being factored into the creation of the new Penn State offense. And there’s still more work to be done.
“We have our base stuff in. We have a good idea of what we have,” Donovan said. “Do we have a great idea yet 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 personalities is that, if you can be unpredictable from week-to-week, that gives you an advantage.
“You’re not going to see the same thing every week. You’ll see similar plays maybe, but you’re hopefully going to see something a little bit different each week.”