Luke Rafferty | Asst. Photo EditorFootball
Coordinated visions: McDonald plans to orchestrate physical, explosive offense at Syracuse
The skepticism started to form immediately when Northern Illinois wide receiver Darrell Hill walked into his new position coach’s office.
George McDonald was just three years removed from his playing days at Illinois, and Hill already had some questions before taking a seat for his first individual meeting with him.
“First of all I’m like, ‘Who’s this young guy that’s trying to coach us? How much can he know?’” said Hill, who was a senior in McDonald’s first season coaching at NIU in 2001. “And you sat down and once you talked to the guy, his personality just came out.”
The young coach’s personality was intense and professional – “strictly business” – from day one. Hill and his teammates quickly learned McDonald knew the game, and grew to respect him for his demanding approach. McDonald parlayed his success at Northern Illinois into jobs with bigger programs in the last decade, building his resume and coaching acumen at Stanford, Western Michigan, Minnesota and Miami, and in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns.
McDonald joined the coaching staff as Arkansas’ wide receivers coach in December, but left in January when Syracuse head coach Scott Shafer came calling. Shafer hired McDonald as his offensive coordinator, a position he held at WMU and described as his dream to attain. McDonald developed a reputation as a top recruiter and cerebral coach since his days at NIU, and now brings those attributes to Syracuse.
“We’re going to be able to recruit great players here,” McDonald said at his introductory press conference. “The thing that we’re going to do better than anyone in the country is we’re going to develop them to even be better players.”
McDonald impressed Shafer when he arrived for his interview at Northern Illinois. Shafer, then the secondary coach, said their coaching philosophies matched and they soon became colleagues.
“Then he came in and coached,” Shafer said. “And by far the best wide receiver coach I’ve ever been associated with.
Hill’s rise from unknown to NFL Draft pick after just one season under McDonald’s tutelage proves Shafer’s sentiment.
In the previous three seasons, Hill hadn’t demonstrated much. He was a one-dimensional receiver who only ran one route – taking off straight down the field for deep balls.
All that changed under McDonald.
With their new coach, the receivers ran ball drills they’d never seen before, lying flat on their backs while McDonald rifled balls at them in one drill, and catching tennis balls he fired their way with one hand in another. They worked on routes and perfected their footwork – all before practice, when the frenetic pace picked up even more.
Jogging was not permitted.
Often, the end of practice only meant the start of another workout for Hill, sometimes lasting 45 minutes.
“We thought the guy was crazy, man,” Hill said. “But when we got in the game action – a lot of those drills that we went through, the ball drills, coming out of the breaks – it really benefited us on game day.”
It benefited Hill beyond his lone season with McDonald.
His breakout senior season, in which he caught 38 passes for 822 yards and seven touchdowns, put him on the NFL’s radar. Hill prepared at Cris Carter’s Fast Camp, where he went through some of the same drills McDonald already put him through, and was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in the seventh round of the 2002 NFL Draft.
Looking back, Hill credits McDonald and the approach he originally questioned for helping him get there.
“Once you bought into it, you respected it because it made you better,” Hill said.
In his career, McDonald mentored more elite receivers in the college game, including Greg Jennings at Western Michigan and Eric Decker at Minnesota. In the last two seasons, he oversaw the development of Miami receivers Tommy Streeter and Travis Benjamin into NFL players.
And last fall, he took on the role of passing game coordinator for the Hurricanes, who finished third in the Atlantic Coast Conference in passing with 295.4 yards per game.
This fall, McDonald will take the reins of the Syracuse offense. Hill expects him to attack his newest challenge with the same intensity and focus he did at Northern Illinois 12 years ago, and McDonald’s excited to get started.
“Every day’s the first day of school for me because I know when I come into the office, I’m going to be surrounded by people with the same vision, the same passion,” McDonald said. “And that passion is developing players, playing great football, winning games, graduating great players and having a lot of fun doing it.”
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