SEATTLE -- Offers were out there. Ed Donatell didn’t need to standing in the middle of a college field, explaining to a 19-year-old kid why he should have started his drop with his left foot instead of the right.
Donatell could still be in the NFL, working at the highest level with players that don’t need the fundamentals pounded into their heads on a constant basis. Sure, Donatell wouldn’t likely be a defensive coordinator, as he was for seven years with a pair NFL teams, but he would already be evaluating film from exhibition games and would never have to worry about recruiting.
So Donatell is back in the college game for the first time in almost 20 years as defensive coordinator at Washington, stepping into a situation that could leave him without a job by the end of the year.
But he is still a coordinator, an opportunity that didn’t seem available in the NFL, and one with a monumental task: improving the worst defense in the history of Washington football.
“I’m having fun teaching from a lower level to start,” Donatell said. “I’m really enjoying that you can make a bigger impression, start with more of a blank canvas. I like that part of it.”
Washington Coach Tyrone Willingham hired Donatell in late January, replacing Kent Baer, who had been on Willingham’s staffs at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington for 13 years. Willingham was loyal to Baer, but had little choice than to look for a new direction after the Huskies defense allowed a school-record 446.4 yards per game last season.
Enter Donatell, who spent last season as a special assistant with the New York Jets after working the previous seven seasons as defensive coordinator in Green Bay and Atlanta. Donatell is quick to correct that he wasn’t out of football last year. Instead, he views his opportunity with the Jets as a chance to work on his “doctorate” in learning the 3-4 defense.
“That was as rewarding a thing as I could do at this point in my career,” Donatell said. “I was a very deliberate student.”
How does that translate to Washington?
For one, the players all seem thrilled by Donatell’s positive coaching style. They like his enthusiasm and hands-on approach, even going so far as to run out and demonstrate. Some noted how Donatell has adapted his defensive philosophies to their strengths and has them learning his defensive philosophies by watching NFL game film.
“He really understands our kind of personalities as players and capitalizes on them,” defensive tackle Cameron Elisara said. “It makes it a lot easier. We want to learn.”
For the defensive backs, they are getting twice the instruction from secondary coach J.D. Williams and Donatell, who spent 17 seasons as a defensive backs coach in both college and the pros before becoming a coordinator.
“He’s more involved in the practices. If one of us doesn’t understand one of the coverages, he’ll hop out there and show us exactly what he wants to see,” safety Nate Williams said of Donatell. “It makes it easier for us to understand exactly what he wants to see, instead of just telling it to us.”
Donatell’s task is made more difficult by an inexperienced defensive line, the loss of top linebacker E.J. Savannah, who is academically ineligible, and little depth. Washington’s secondary should be the most talented it’s had since 2002, the Huskies’ last winning season. Donald Butler and Mason Foster are talented linebackers, but Daniel Te’o-Nesheim is the only returning starter on the defensive front.
Donatell believes he has enough experienced “connections” on his defense to make up for the overall lack of experience.
“I can’t even explain my method or my calculation, I just feel a comfort level when I know these guys can communicate and get the message to the different levels,” Donatell said. “There is enough.”