The Donovan Offense - Franklin & First OC Experiences

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Like many others here on UWDP, I've had a lot of extra time at home without sports. I've been toying around with a few ideas for what to write about, but since recruiting has been really quiet relative to what most springs are like, I've decided to do another film breakdown. I also decided that since its been a couple of months since John Donovan's hiring as our new Offensive Coordinator, the dust has settled enough for a fair assessment of what he brings to the table. Thanks to the NFL's decision to give out complimentary access to Game Pass, as well as YouTube's infinite archive of old games, I've put together a breakdown on what we may see this fall (at least I really hope this fall).

*Sorry for the delay on this second installment of my deep dive on Donovan's offense and career. If you want a refresh on the first installment you can follow the link here.

Before we start - Big time congratulations to the University of Washington Class of 2020 who would've been graduating at Husky Stadium this weekend!

The Franklin Years (2009-2015): Donovan's Rise Up the Ranks

This installment focuses on Donovan's next major career progression when James Franklin rejoined the staff at Maryland in 2009 as it marks the beginning of Donovan's rise to the coordinator ranks. During this period we can get a better sense for what aspects of the Friedgen-Franklin offense Donovan put his own impression on. Specific play concepts, formations, personnel groupings, and his adjustments to his personnel can be best identified during these years.

Before diving into games where Donovan was the actual play caller, I wanted to watch at least one Franklin-called game in order to identify any changes to the offenses that can be attributed to Franklin rather than Donovan. Franklin had actually been one of the few carryover assistants at Maryland that Friedgen retained when he took over as HC, but Franklin left for a brief stint on one of the few non-Snyder Kansas State staffs. The timing of Franklin's release from K-State was somewhat fortuitous as Maryland's offensive decline since the 2002 season had reached a nadir during the 2008 season. Friedgen shuffled the staff and Franklin returned to Maryland as OC. There was actually an interview with Franklin by Tony DeMeo in 2015, and in the interview they went over a few of Franklin's favorite concepts and scheme. In the interview, Franklin described his offense as,

"West Coast Offense organizationally but it has pieces of Don Coryell and Ralph Friedgen in it. I believe in the Power Run Game from one back or two back formations. My two favorite run are the Power O play & the Zone play with a lead blocker. My favorite passes are Four Verticals and the Flanker Drive Pass which features the Z doing a shallow cross."

While Franklin's offensive identity, as noted above, is rooted in Friedgen principles, he made quite a few noticeable changes in scheme. Let's take a quick look at what he has changed.

2010 Maryland vs. #21 West Virginia

2010 Maryland, 12 Personnel, Ace Twins Right, Inside Zone, WR screen tag

2010 Maryland, 11 Personnel, H-motion, Zone Slice Boot

As you can see from the two plays above, a new offensive structure, the zone-boot concept, was introduced to to the Franklin offense. Unlike Friedgen, whose offense primarily ran a power/gap scheme, Franklin made significant use of zone schemes as well. Modern Shanahan and McVay offenses that have based their entire systems around outside zone with a diverse boot action passing game, and this is because the zone-boot concepts can offer many different option and counters off of each component of the concept. Franklin doesn't go as far as building his entire offense around it, instead opting to maintain his power/gap scheme, but it does become an integral part of the offense. The important takeaway from this is that zone-boot concepts require athleticism along the OL and at QB as the entire scheme is based on lateral movement to create horizontal stress in a defense. Athleticism at OT and center are the keys to effective line play when running zone-boot concepts since they make the key seal and reach blocks.

QBs would also need to be pretty athletic in a scheme that emphasizes boot action. That doesn't mean that QBs need to be true rushing threats, but they need to have the functional athleticism and mobility to perform in and out of the pocket. As you can see in the second of the two clips above, Maryland's QB not only needs to execute a convincing play action fake, but then also needs to make an off-platform throw on the move to evade the backside pressure. This is a fairly standard throw in zone-boot concepts, and while the throw itself is only about 10 yards and doesn't require a lot of arm talent, or true dual threat, it is a difficult throw for an immobile QB. Even on inside zone concepts, like the first clip, boot action is integrated into the play design to keep the backside edge defender honest. The best example of the impact that a mobile QB can have on a team's implementation of zone-boot concepts is our significant use of the zone-boot concepts under Jake Browning, who had decent mobility but average arm talent. Gaskin's proficiency in outside zone runs, when paired with Browning's ability to execute the boot action, allowed us to install this concept, but it then disappeared from our play calling under Eason, even though we made significant use of outside zone concepts, I believe in part because of his struggles with off platform passes despite tremendous arm talent. Keep this emphasis on functional mobility/athleticism in mind as I believe this is becoming a pattern.

2010 Maryland, 21 Personnel, I-formation RB-motion WR screen

Another key aspect of Franklin's offenses were his expanded use of motions and shifts to alter formation leverages, simplify coverage reads, and dictate match ups. Friedgen had used shifts in his offenses, but Franklin began to use RB motion, like in the clip above, to identify man coverage (although it doesn't look like the QB identified stacked defenders that would indicate a blitz from the slot defender that blew up the play). I consider these simple motions and shifts more effective at the college level than full formation shifts because they provide cleaner reads for QBs than the frantic defensive shuffling that might be the reaction to more complicated shifts. While shifts add an additional layer to the offense for younger players to learn, it does make life easier for QBs, and this degree of motion should still be a simplification of the offense compared to some of the Petersen offense's shifts.

2012 Vanderbilt vs. #5 Georgia

Moving on to the Donovan-OC'd offenses, I picked a few games from his Vanderbilt and Penn State years to focus on, and I chose these games based on two criteria. First, the games had to be in the second or third years of his tenures, and this was because I wanted to see what his offenses looked like after a full year of installation and acclimation by the players. Being in the second or third years at a school also allows us to see how Donovan adjusts his offense to accommodate the talents of the players on the team. The second criterion was that the games had to feature a talented opponent that would challenge Donovan's ability to game plan and call plays that would put his players positions to mitigate any talent disparities. What I'm looking for are plays and concepts that are repeatedly called, which would indicate that they are core to Donovan's offense, and how it fits with the personnel. Lets take a look at a few plays that stood out to me.

12 Personnel, Ace Wing Twins, Speed Option

In this first play we see a throwback play that has been a staple of the Friedgen-Franklin offenses since the Georgia Tech days. Under center pitch-option plays, unlike the more common shotgun mesh-option plays, are pretty one-dimensional, and they don't really set up play action or other non-option concepts. The fact that some version of this play was called 5 times in 61 offensive plays indicates to me that the use of option concepts to bolster the run game is a favorite approach of Donovan's when designing a rushing attack. Speaking of rushing attacks, Donovan called power/gap plays or inside zone plays almost exclusively in this game. The speed option and Power-O plays were the only perimeter runs that called, and the wide zone plays that Franklin had made good use of at Maryland were non-existent.

Another note I made that was related to the speed option play was how it fit into the rest of the game plan vs. Georgia. Over the course of watching the game, it seems as though Donovan's game plan was to drain the clock and hope that a few chunk plays would swing the game in his favor. A more common approach these days is to attack a more talented opponent with the spread passing game, but between the option and a couple of designed QB runs, Donovan took a much more conservative approach to utilizing his QB. Jordan Rodgers (Aaron's brother, but apparently more known from his time on The Bachelorette...) is a decent athlete, but he's an average passer at best. I'm unsure how Donovan would've approached this game plan if he wanted to be as conservative with his QB but with a less athletic QB (spoiler: we'll have a few answers later).

Everyone's favorite formation/play...

I'll just leave this play up here and will let you folks make of it what you will.

11 Personnel?, Empty Base, Levels (Strong/Field) + Double Post (Weak/Boundary)

Here is one of the new concepts that I noticed Donovan install. Empty was not something that I saw in the Friedgen or Franklin offenses, so I'm going to attribute this entirely to Donovan. The utilization of empty signifies a more modern approach to using formations to improve spacing and bolster the passing game. While this is a nice wrinkle to the passing game, it is just that, a wrinkle. The levels and double post concepts that were run out of this formation on this play are fairly common to the Franklin offense, and they are not all that innovative. The play here seems to have been a designed "shot play" where Rodgers really only read the double post for the big play. This is consistent with the game plan that was hunting for big plays when forced into passing situations, but it also shows a simplistic passing attack that doesn't seem to have integrated a good option for the QB to even have a shot at getting a first down if the big play wasn't there. My take away from this game was that the passing game needs a pretty significant update in order to have enough answers for when the run game gets shut down.

2013 Vanderbilt vs. Ole Miss

The 2013 Vanderbilt team was probably a little less talented than the 2012 team due to the departure of NFL RB Zac Stacy, but the emergence of Austyn Carta-Samuels (brother of KJ Carta-Samuels, who UW fans should remember from a couple of years ago) as a capable distributor in this offense really helped future NFL WR Jordan Matthews flourish. While a little less athletic than Jordan Rodgers, Carta-Samuels still exhibits pocket mobility and functional athleticism that has been a consistent trait of the more successful Friedgen-Franklin-Donovan offenses.

On the other side of this match up is an up-and-coming Ole Miss team that featured defensive talents such as Robert Nkemdiche, Senquez Golson, Cody Prewitt, and Tony Conner.

21 Personnel, Strong-I Twins, Zone Weak, WR Screen tag

From what I saw over the last two years with Hamdan, we never made the quick screen game an integral component of our run game. There were times where we had quick pass concepts (slant-flat, bubble, smoke screen) that were tagged onto certain runs, but Donovan made these a tag on almost every run. The play above is from seven years ago, and this was one of the earliest forms of the RPO that began to gain traction across football. These days it seems a bit archaic, but the basic concepts and goals are woven into the fabric of Donovan's offense. Of course, there is obviously a time and place for trying to out leverage the defense and take what they are giving, and there are also times where pure power football is called for (*cough Seahawks *cough). I do think that Donovan incorporating more of this into our rushing attack will add more than it will subtract.

Jumbo 21 Personnel (6 OL), Strong-I, A-Gap Power

The play above is something that I think could be a good idea that should be incorporated into our program. In the play, there are actually 6 OL that are being deployed in this short yardage package, similar to the jumbo set that we utilized a handful of times this past season. Just in this game I counted about 5-7 plays that they ran out of this personnel group with #50 Andrew Jelks (RS FR, OL, 6-6, 305) at TE, so I'm inclined to think that this is something that was a more integral portion of their offense. If we really want to make a statement and commit to an offensive identity that is truly a "smashmouth offense", then using this type of a formation would be beneficial to that goal. Stanford lean on heavily this type of OL development during their peak Harbaugh-Shaw years when they routinely had OL get their first taste of action in 6+ OL packages. Those packages also helped them boast some of the highest short yardage and red zone conversion rates in the country, which is something we need to improve in moving forward. We have several options for putting together this type of package (Ale, Kalepo, Buelow, Norgaard, Fautanu, etc.), and it may be in our favor to adopt this package in the event that our TEs ever trend back towards our situation like last year where our top 2 TEs weren't maulers in the run game (Otton is solid, but Bryant was not as effective as Kizer).

11 Personnel, Pistol Wing Doubles, H-Cross

Now this play above should be somewhat familiar to us fans as Hunter Bryant earned a lot of his YAC yardage on plays like this. Y/H-Cross is a classic Air Raid concept that has become about as common as 4-verts and mesh in recent years, and it is primarily designed to utilize the slot player to attack a potential soft area in the intermediate middle of the field and to create a high-low conflict for the safety. Sometimes this can be confused for 3-verts or a Y/H-shallow (Bryant was also featured in those plays), but there are a few key differences.

Y/H-Cross out of a 2x2 Shotgun Formation

Y/H-Cross differentiates itself from 3/4-verts based on how it is trying to manipulate the safeties. As you can see in the diagram above, the Y/H player is trying to get inside leverage on the slot defender and attack the interior gap between the linebackers and the safeties. Whether there is a 2-deep or 1-deep safety look, the deep safety nearest to the Y/H would be forced into a conflict where he would have to trigger quickly to prevent a shot to the weak spot in the deep zones, as well as a big YAC opportunity. If the safety does trigger downhill, then the Z would get a 1-on-1 deep on an island with either a post or fade depending on the CB's leverage. A 3/4-vert play would have the Y/H take a more vertical stem up the seam to maximize horizontal spacing, but a seam wouldn't create the potential for vertical spacing conflict with the opportunity for the Z-post.

Shallow Cross out of a 2x2 Ace Formation

As you can see above, Y/H-Cross differentiates itself from Y/H-Shallow (another staple of the Air Raid that had made its way into Hamdan's rotation of calls) by how it manipulates the coverage to attack the LBs in coverage rather than the safeties. In this case, instead of creating a high-low vertical conflict on the safeties to attack the deep middle or Z-side of the field, Y/H-Shallow tries to get the flats defenders to drop deep and to get the LBs to flow against the shallow route by running a dig route over the shallow. This is designed to open up YAC opportunities for the Y or H, and it is much more of an underneath and almost screen or rub type of concept, which didn't quite fit into Donovan's more vertical offense at the time. That being said, I wouldn't be surprised if we kept both the Y/H-Cross and Y/H-Shallow in our offense next year under Donovan since both are sound concepts and have better efficiency on a down-to-down basis than some of the other Hamdan favorites (triple slants into leverage?).

2015 Penn State vs. #12 Michigan

This is going to be the contentious portion of Donovan's resume. As everyone already knows, Donovan was relieved of his duties immediately after this season, and there has been discussion about if he was made the scapegoat for an abysmal offense that in my opinion had Franklin's fingerprints all over it. I focused on this particular match up because it was a relatively competitive game between Penn State and a very strong Michigan team that was particularly stout on defense that year. Before we take a look at a few plays, I'd like to mention a few of my notes for context. First, Hackenberg was the starter at QB with a handful of 1st or 2nd year talents in Saquon Barkley, Chris Godwin, Daesean Hamilton, and a yet to breakout Mike Gesicki. Aside from Hackenberg, all of those skills players had yet to breakout at PSU before the 2015 season.

Second, PSU's OL was an absolute mess that year. While they had some talent and experience (2 4-star and 3 3-star, all 5 that started the Michigan game were at least 3rd year players), this was the 7th starting combination in 11 games, and UM's aggressive defense definitely leaned into that weak link. Chemistry is critical along the OL in order to stand up to the more complicated blitz packages that PSU sees from its B1G opponents, and its pretty obvious that the chemistry was lacking.

Finally, I had a note on my sheet in all-caps "HACKENBERG IS BROKEN". I have never seen a more highly rated QB completely fall apart as a 3rd year starter. I can't necessarily blame the system for causing this as there were routine passes that we easy checkdowns, and he would routinely miss those passes. Hackenberg's mechanics were absolutely shot, and you could tell that he was seeing ghosts in the pocket by the second series. By the end of the game he was so rattled that McSorley got a few snaps. I firmly believe that Hackenberg's sanction-riddled OLs in his first two years really began to take a toll on his psyche, and he was beginning to fall into the David Carr-type of pressure-induced yips. I think UW fans that haven't watched much of the 2015 Penn State games won't recognize how much the staff was likely propping Hackenberg up just to get through the season, and Donovan being a scapegoat for Franklin is a very likely scenario. Hackenberg was a post-Paterno Savior for the team, and Franklin was not going to bench his regressing QB because of the potential backlash. It would've been like if Sarkisian benched a regressing Locker in 2010 for his own recruit, Keith Price. Such a move would've been met with significant backlash, even though Price's career wins and statistics (like McSorley's) make a good argument that he should've been pushing the incumbent for playing time.Franklin probably knew that he couldn't blow the team chemistry by benching Hackenberg, and he also knew he was getting onto the hot seat heading into his third year, so buying time for his own recruits to be ready to start was probably a factor in Donovan's firing. Donovan's career being tied to Hackenberg by Franklin is something to consider when looking at the offense's performance. Anyways, let's take a look at a few plays.

11 Personnel, 3x1 Shotgun, Short Motion Mesh

In this early play, we can see yet another Air Raid staple, Mesh. Given some of the earlier Vanderbilt clips that showed some Air Raid influences in Donovan's passing attack, as well as the adoption of the concept in many non-Air Raid offenses, I believe that this is one of Donovan's plays rather than a Franklin influence. Mesh was also a concept that UW ran on a regular basis against man-heavy defenses, so I'd expect to see this play next season. For those of you who aren't as familiar with the Mesh concept, here's a diagram below that is pretty close to the play above.

2x2 Shotgun Formation, Mesh

This is a pretty typical Mesh concept out of a 3x1 Shotgun Formation, and Mike Leach has been known to utilize this particular version of mesh that is tagged with a wheel route. As I noted in the diagram, the progression is a pretty straight forward left to right read. While the wheel route from Barkley is the first read, it is really just an alert in case there is an obvious mismatch or the defense fails to pick up the RB in coverage (which is pretty common on blitz packages or when the RB is known for staying in to block). Most times the RB is simply clearing the flat area to open space for the shallow crosser that is the #2 read. The core Mesh concept is a 2-3-4 read across the middle of the field on the diagram above. Against man, the "Mesh" between the two shallow crossers creates a natural pick to free up one of the two, and against zone the #3 is supposed to sit in the gap between zones that should open if the underneath defenders chase the two crossers. This makes Mesh a pretty versatile concept in most cases, but modern match defenses and hybrid coverages have gotten pretty good at accounting for all of the options in the Mesh. In the clip above, Hackenberg reads the sinking LB that is taking Barkley deep, so he tries to fire a pass to the crosser to the left. Michigan likes to lock it's 2 perimeter CBs in man a majority of the time (they typically have good CB play), and then they'll have their LB's run hybrid zones to clog the underneath zones. However, the concept still worked in getting #5 open running against the flow of the zone. I'll give Hackenberg credit for making a quick decision against a ferocious 4-man pass rush, but he completely sails what should be a pretty routine throw to an open WR. This was just one example of his inability to make even the most routine throws that seriously hinder the effective execution of the offense.

12 Personnel, Bunch Tight, Inside Zone Slice

The play above and below are both examples of what I see as clear examples of Franklin's influence on this offense. As you might remember from the first two plays that we looked at in the beginning of the article, Franklin made the inside and outside zone concepts a core component of his offense, and the slice action by an auxiliary blocker was a particularly noticeable feature of his play designs. By comparison, Donovan's offenses at Vanderbilt, in which he is generally credited with having more autonomy to run his system, were built on power and gap schemes. However, what I didn't see was much of an effort to utilize the slice action in any play action concepts or any of the previously used boot action concepts. Hackenberg wasn't a particularly mobile QB, but he should have had enough athleticism to be able to implement some of the boot action concepts. Alternatively, PSU could have used more RPO concepts as the constraint to the zone slice plays. Instead of utilizing Hackenberg's on boots, they could have had him lean into some of his gun slinger tendencies to attempt some quick passing RPOs, as Donovan had done at Vandy.

11 Personnel, Pistol Strong, Inside Zone Slice

At the end of the day, I see a mix of Donovan and Franklin influences in the play calling, and quite frankly I don't think it was a particularly effective blend. I can't say for certain who was making the play calling decisions, but I didn't see much synergy between the run concepts, the passing concepts, or any of the formations. Hackenberg was running for his life, and I just didn't see many adjustments. Only one screen was called by my count. Most quick passes were isolation routes rather than route combinations or concepts. The play action wasn't very well disguised in the blocking action, and route combinations that were featured in play action were rather ineffective. I also saw some pretty poor execution from the WRs in their route running, particularly on switch route concepts. I think that a lot of this has to do with Michigan being an absolute buzzsaw on defense that year, but I also think that there was a lot more turmoil on the staff than can makes it hard to assign the blame.

It's worth noting that after I did my film review, I did some research on the 2015 PSU staff and found some interesting background information. Penn State utilized an odd offensive staff structure where Franklin had some influence given his OC background, but then they had Donovan as the OC, Ricky Rahne as the QB/Passing Game Coordinator, and then Herb Hand as the OL/Run Game Coordinator. That degree of role separation can be very difficult to navigate, especially during games where quick decision making is important. This would explain some of the disjointed play calling and game plan development. Donovan needs to quickly build relationships with UW's offensive staff and work with Lake to ensure he can implement an effective offensive organizational structure among his assistants. This will help ensure that his offense is installed properly, that there is a clear and effective decision making process, and a clear structure for communication during the week so the game plan is well thought out and executed.

Main Takeaways:

  • Functionally mobile QBs are more important to opening up the offense than pure arm talent
  • Donovan offenses employ a diverse run scheme (power/gap scheme with well-integrated zone run concepts)
  • Be prepared to see continued use of the Wildcat package
  • Donovan has utilized unconventional jumbo packages to boost the ground-and-pound & short yardage packages, which could better leverage our talented OL room
  • Donovan began updating his passing attack after 2012 with borrowed concepts from the Air Raid, some of the earlier RPO concepts, and a few early attempts to integrate empty formations into his vertical passing game. Both Donovan & Lake have mentioned a Pro-Style approach to offense, but I think that will include a fairly significant Air Raid flair that has been incorporated into most short-intermediate passing attacks.
  • Donovan was effective with autonomy running the offense at Vanderbilt, but struggled to manage the organizational and management duties at PSU when Franklin & the other staffers took on larger roles that muddied the staff org chart

Film Study References: