John Donovan has plenty of questions.
Penn State’s offensive coordinator is hoping he has most of them answered by the time the Nittany Lions are cruising over the North Atlantic en route to Dublin, Ireland where Penn State will open the season against Central Florida on Aug. 30.
Donovan understands, however, that realizing the full capabilities, limitations and potential of multiple offensive personnel groupings and schemes may not be a realistic proposition with just 29 preseason practices to work with.
“The faster we’re able to find out who we are and what we do well, the better off we’ll be,” Donovan said. “Hopefully that will come sooner or later. We’ve had some strong finishes the last couple of years as a staff where we’ve been. If we can find that out sooner, hopefully we’ll get out to a good start and keep that thing going. That’s the plan going into camp. Who can do what well and who’s going to play?”
Donovan, entering his fourth season running an offense at the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level, is in the process of implementing a system that could look similar to what was employed by former head coach Bill O’Brien. Donovan coached with O’Brien for two years at Maryland where O’Brien coached running backs.
Like O’Brien, Donovan has brought a pro-style offense to Penn State. He inherits pieces of an offense that ranked 43rd in total offense last season.
Returning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Christian Hackenberg’s job is safe at quarterback. Senior tailbacks Bill Belton and Zach Zwinak are back and will likely share running back duties. Kyle Carter, Jesse James and sophomore Adam Breneman, who finished 2013 strong, are talented returnees at tight end. Left tackle Donovan Smith is the lone starter back on the offensive line.
First and foremost, Donovan is looking for reliable new linemen to surface and playmakers to separate from the pack in what is largely a wide-open receiving corps. Head coach James Franklin — who’s been asked about Hackenberg and the team’s running back depth consistently since he was hired in January — is also more concerned with identifying complimentary players around them.
“We are looking for improvements from Hack, but I’m going to be honest with you, where our focus really is, is all the pieces of the puzzle around Hack,” Franklin said. “You know, that’s going to allow him to continue to develop, making sure that we are able to protect him with our offensive line, making sure that we are able to be balanced offensively and be able to run the ball with our offensive line and tight end, having a huge impact in that, as well, and finding some wide receivers to make up for the production we lost, all these things factor into it.”
Franklin and Donovan know that offensive identities are largely developed over a span of games, not practice sessions.
In O’Brien’s final year, Penn State’s offensive identity — a pass-heavy approach that eventually balanced out — evolved as the season wore on. Early inconsistencies in the running game turned into eventual flourishes as offensive linemen grew into their roles. Meanwhile, Belton’s emergence as a versatile back helped the Nittany Lions form a powerful 1-2 punch with his quickness and Zwinak’s north-south style.
Penn State averaged 157 rushing yards per game — eclipsing 100 yards in just three contests against Eastern Michigan, UCF and Kent State — in the first six weeks compared to a 190-yard per game average over the final six. Then, Penn State’s front five played consistently with confidence, reaching the 120-yard mark in every game for the final half of the season.
Meanwhile, the passing game — which was varied and explosive immediately with fifth-year senior Matt McGloin at the helm in 2012 — actually fell off slightly when Hackenberg took over. Penn State’s passing attack went from 35th in the NCAA in 2012 to 37th last season.
But with more reps and as the season unfolded, Hackenberg grew into his position nicely. His progression was evident in the numbers he put up.
The then 18-year-old took 18 sacks through the first seven games but just three over the final five. In addition, Hackenberg fired eight interceptions and completed 58 percent of his throws the first seven. He threw just three interceptions and completed 61 percent of his passes in the final five games.
O’Brien consistently praised Hackenberg’s ability to grasp concepts — rather than memorize specific plays — in order to adjust on the fly in games later in the season. Hackenberg has expressed confidence in his ability to quickly adapt to Donovan’s offense with his tutelage under O’Brien as a base.
“I think where the advantage comes is we run a similar system. So a lot of the concepts that he’s been taught, there’s a lot of carry over,” Franklin said. “We teach in a form of concepts, as well. So I think that’s been really helpful. I think in a lot of times, it’s difficult because when a young player has had a bunch of success, they have embraced that system and they know the system is part of their success.”
Having a record-setting receiver helped ease Hackenberg’s transition to the collegiate game, too. But now that Allen Robinson — a player who helped produce 40 percent of Penn State’s aerial offense in 2013 — is gone, Hackenberg will be forced to target others. Only Geno Lewis (18 catches) and Matt Zanellato (4 catches) return from last season’s receiving corps.
Franklin and Donovan have multiple ideas ready to try in order to mask some of the offense’s inexperience, however.
“We are going to have to call the game to help with those things,” Franklin said. “That’s moving the pocket, that's getting the ball out of his hand as quickly as we possibly can, and there's a variety of ways of doing that. That's committing to the running game. I think when you have a quarterback like Christian, you say, well, let's just throw the ball but you have to be careful because over time, you become predictable and you have to be careful. We are going to have to commit to the running game and sticking with the running game, no matter what. I think that's going to be very, very important for us.”