Cover story: Film study helps Donatell create his own highlight reel
After a long day at the Hayden Fry Football Complex, full of weightlifting, team meetings, and video sessions, Tom Donatell finally gets to go home.
He’s tired. He’s a senior student with a light class load. Like so many other college kids in that situation, he sits down on his couch and turns on his TV or pulls out his laptop.
And then he begins two more hours of studying game film on the next weekend’s opponent.
“I’m not taking as many classes as before, which means I can spend a lot more time on that stuff,” the Hawkeye safety said excitedly. “With the team, we watch about an hour and a half of film per day. But on my own, I probably watch two more.”
A coach’s kid
High-school football players from Georgia don’t usually decide to walk on at Iowa. That’s the sort of thing that only the son of a well-traveled coach would do.
Now the secondary coach of the San Francisco 49ers, Ed Donatell had stints as a defensive coordinator with the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons. He said this week that many of his favorite players to coach, such as former Packer defensive lineman Aaron Kampman, came from the Hawkeye program.
“Being in the field of coaching, you always have your eye on great programs,” Ed Donatell said. “And with all these Iowa guys, I could see there was a great culture.”
Tom Donatell had been an all-conference quarterback in Duluth, Ga. But he suffered two ACL tears near the end of his high-school days. That, as he said, “put a damper on a lot of recruiting interest.”
One day, while Tom Donatell visited his dad at the Falcon football office, he met Kirk Ferentz. The Iowa head coach was there to see son Brian, who was an injured player for Atlanta. Ferentz knew Ed Donatell through the coaching grapevine, so he offered Tom Donatell a visit in Iowa City.
To the delight of his father, Tom Donatell decided to walk on at Iowa after just one visit. Ferentz said players such as Kampman played a big role.
“Up in Green Bay, that’s where it all got started,” Ferentz said on Aug. 28. “Interesting that a guy from Atlanta would choose to walk on [here]. Those guys made an impression on his dad and also on Tommy.”
The position shuffle
Tom’s dad spent his whole career coaching defensive backs. So when Hawkeye coaches asked Donatell to switch from quarterback to safety early in his Iowa career, Ed Donatell was excited.
“Yeah, we had always talked offense together, but that wasn’t his specialty,” Tom Donatell said. “We had some good times working through his drills once I switched over.”
Tom Donatell soaked up knowledge as a backup safety for a few years. But then coaches asked him to switch positions again — this time to linebacker after injuries had thinned Iowa there. He stepped in after an injury to senior Tyler Nielsen. And then it was back to safety before this season.
Donatell, who hopes to follow in his dad’s footsteps as a coach, said the switching never frustrated him. And teammate Tanner Miller said it was — like Donatell’s growing appetite for film study — just a chance to learn more.
“Anytime you can take away pieces of a position or another aspect of the game, that helps,” Miller said. “That’s what this game is about. The more knowledge you can accumulate, the better player you’re going to be. He’s a real smart football player, and he knows everything that’s happening on the field.”
‘He’s the perfect Iowa safety’
“The mental aspect of football is huge,” Donatell said. “It’s almost everything. There’s a reason the fastest and biggest guys don’t always play.”
For proof, you don’t have to look any further than the position battle that Donatell won this fall. Sophomore Nico Law was the widely presumed starter at strong safety for the Hawkeyes and seen by many as a rising star of the defense.
Donatell was a fifth-year senior who hadn’t seen much playing time and had originally walked on to the team. How did he become the starter?
Film study popped up again.
“I think the first thing that comes to mind for me would be consistency,” Ferentz said. “That’s the first word I think of with him. First of all, he’s the perfect Iowa safety. He’s a walk-on that nobody knew about … I think the plays he has made are the result of him practicing and watching tape, just playing smart football.”
What does Tanner Miller think drives Donatell’s success?
“He’s been in the right place at the right time, and that comes from being well-prepared during the week,” he said. “He’s in the film room all the time, and that’s what I attribute it to. Playing smart.”
‘We had definitely seen it before’
Early in the third quarter on Sept. 15 against Northern Iowa, the Hawkeyes had forced the Panthers into a third-and-10 situation. Donatell saw the formation UNI lined up in and knew what to expect.
“They were running a seam route with their No. 2 receiver,” he said. “And then they were going to try to slip the No. 1 inside, underneath that route. We had definitely seen it before.”
Donatell jumped in front of the underneath route, dove, and intercepted the pass. It was his second-straight game with an interception. Iowa went on to win, 27-16. Ed Donatell said he gets to watch all of his son’s games. And seeing him pick off passes is as proud a moment as you would expect for a veteran defensive-back coach.
“It’s kind of a culmination of a lot of hard work,” he said. “And there’s a tradition at Iowa of walk-on kids who persevere and make productive plays. That’s a pretty special thing.”
But something was still bothering Donatell.
After the game Iowa once again allowed an easy touchdown on the first drive. Just as Iowa State had a week earlier, the Panthers had no problem marching down the field to score.
Donatell didn’t know the answer. But he knew where to find it.
“We’ve just got to get in the film room and figure it out,” he said.
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