Donahue Is WVU’s Grizzled Veteran
MORGANTOWN, W.Va.–West Virginia’s first-year defensive coaching staff is charged with rebuilding a unit that features just one player who started more than seven games in 2018 and will be back at basically that same position in 2019 – defensive tackle Reese Donahue.
Now in reality no Mountaineer defender is in the exact same spot this year as last. The transition from Tony Gibson’s 3-3-5 odd stack to Vic Koenning’s 4-2-5 hybrid scheme means every position is somewhat different.
But among the defensive returnees, Donahue is the most experienced in most ways.
The senior from Ona, West Virginia, has started 24 of the Mountaineers’ 25 games over the past two seasons. Linebacker Dylan Tonkery is the only other WVU defender still on the roster who has more the 10 career starts to his credit, as he has 14. But because of injuries to Tonkery and others last year – limiting the Bridgeport (W.Va.) High grad to five starts in ’18 – and then position changes and departures, Donahue is the only one who’s still around who was on the field for the first defensive play in eight or more games last season.
Gone are defensive linemen Jabril Robinson and Kenny Bigelow, linebacker David Long and safeties Dravon Askew-Henry, Toyous Avery and Kenny Robinson. Two other full-time starters in 2018 have moved positions with former linebacker JoVanni Stewart sliding back to spear safety and cornerback Josh Norwood now working at safety. Tonkery and Shea Campbell split most of the starts mike linebacker, and while West Virginia’s top corners all return in Norwood, Hakeem Bailey and Keith Washington, only Norwood, who is now at safety, started more than seven contests.
So all that leaves Donahue as the most veteran of West Virginia’s returning defenders.
The 6-foot-4, 276-pound fourth-year senior from Cabell Midland High School has recorded 76 tackles in his career, 24 of which came last season.
Besides his play on the field, Donahue is in most ways West Virginia’s leader this year. For him, using that leadership and developing team chemistry is extremely important.
“Records reflect a lot. There are a lot of different variables that go into it. But ultimately games, moments, times in the weightroom where you don’t know whether or not you can finish, you’re in week three in camp when your suffering and your neck and legs hurt, who is going to push you through those tough times,” Donahue noted. “Is it going to be Coach (Neal) Brown getting in your butt? Or is the guy you’ve been working with all summer long who is going to help you finish? It might help us win one game, it might help us win one down, it might help us win 10 games. I don’t know. I can’t tell you, but I do know it plays a huge factor.”
Everyone likes to talk about leadership and team chemistry, but it’s hard to quantify.
“There is no scientific evidence to what camaraderie does,” Donahue continued. “There’s no GPS you can put on to measure it. There is no 225-pound bench like at the (NFL) Combine that you can tell. But camaraderie is completely underrated. It changes the dynamics of a team and changes how we perform on the field.”
One way WVU’s first-year head coach is trying to develop chemistry is through a variety of team-bounding activities. Some are competitive events, like paint ball and bowling, and others are more leisurely, like cookouts, but the hope is all will bring the players and coaches closer together.
“We’re Division I athletes; we compete in most everything we do,” smiled Donahue. “If I’m sitting in here trying to throw my empty Gatorade bottle into the trashcan, we’re all going to try to make it in first. That’s just our nature. But one thing I think is important, and Coach Brown has tried to emphasize it to us, is that the program is now like a snow globe. Everything was settled, and then coaches came in. At the same time, new players came in and some left. So, you took the snow globe and shook it up and everything was flying around. What I think this going peoples’ houses (for cookouts), the Big Brother program, all these new things Coach Brown has implemented, is to take these pieces and let them settle back to the bottom. Before Coach Brown can trust me, he has to know who I am, and before I can trust him, I have to know who he is. It’s the same thing going to all the position coaches’ homes and all us hanging out together.”
All the fun activities give the players and coaches some insight into one another.
“We’re people. People who tweet at us on Twitter and things like that, we’re people behind those Twitter accounts,” explained the exercise physiology major who is a two-time first-team academic All-Big 12 honoree. “(Defensive line) Coach (Jordan) Leslie, when he goes home, he has a wife and two kids. Coach Brown, he has a family when he goes home. He’s not just the head football coach at West Virginia; he’s a real person. So with that, it means a lot to be a part of everyone’s life. Football is going to be over one day for everybody. Coach Brown is going to stop coaching one day, and I am going to stop playing one day, whether that is six months or 10 years. Whatever it might be, it’s going to end. And it’s good to know the person, what they are really about. That way you can give your 100 percent.”