Donovan shining under spotlight

Jeff Donovan

Quarterback Jeff Donovan has made significant strides from his junior to senior season. Photo Illustration by Joy Kowald.

The spotlight has been on Jeff Donovan ever since he stepped foot on the UW-Whitewater campus in 2006.

Now, in his final year as the quarterback of one of the top-ranked football offenses in the country, he is shining in that spotlight.

“I want people to put their faith in me,” Donovan said. “In a close game, I want to be out there and make a play.”

In last Saturday’s 31-13 win over Wittenberg in the NCAA quarterfinals he did just that.

The senior picked the right time to find Adam Brandes for a 28-yard touchdown in the back left corner of the end zone with 51 seconds left in the third quarter.

It was a picture perfect throw, and it changed the complexion of the game as it put the Warhawks ahead 21-13.

 “It was huge,” said Donovan, who will lead the ’Hawks into a national semifinal game against Linfield College Saturday at home. “It was 14-13 [before the touchdown]. I live for those situations. That’s why I play sports.”

Humbling Experience

Donovan, however, was stripped of playing sports last spring.

Following his first-year as the starting quarterback in 2008, Donovan, who also had played on the baseball team in his freshman and sophomore years, was ruled academically ineligible for the 2009 spring season.

It was a low point for the former all-state athlete from Wauwatosa East High School. But he doesn’t hide from what happened.

“You’re going to make mistakes; you just have to keep your chin up,” Donovan said after throwing for 236 yards and two touchdowns against Wittenberg, the No. 1-ranked defense in the country.

However, that didn’t mean he wasn’t disappointed in himself.

“It was just a tough time,” Donovan admitted. “For a while, I didn’t look anyone in the face. I was just kind of embarrassed. Really embarrassed, actually.”

While he looks to put that chapter behind him, the 2009 WIAC player of the year is still learning from it.

“The situation has made me more mature,” Donovan said. “It’s helped just because I’m going to make mistakes on the football field. In life and in football, it all runs together.”

All-American Season

Although Donovan could not compete in baseball, he could participate in the football spring practices last April – which turned into being a blessing in disguise.

“It was a lot different coming into this year as opposed to my first year just because of my comfort level,” he said. “My comfort is attributed to my preparation before the season.”

 His play has shown throughout the season that this is true.

Donovan’s touchdown to interception ratio is 27:5; he’s third in the country in passing efficiency, has completed a conference leading 73.4 percent of his passes and already has more than 3,000 yards passing.

He also tied a school record when he tossed five touchdowns in UW-Whitewater’s home opener against Midland Lutheran in September.

“If he throws an incompletion, everyone’s like ‘what happened,’ ” offensive coordinator Jim Zebrowski said. “That’s really nice to see how far he’s come. Every throw, you expect to be completed. You trust him.”

Steady Progression

But this was not an overnight process for Donovan, who is tied for third on UW-Whitewater’s all-time touchdown passing list.

After sitting behind Justin Jacobs and Danny Jones in his first two years, Donovan was thrust into the starting job as a junior.

He guided the Warhawks to the national title game but was still getting accustomed to being the leader of the offense. Donovan threw 11 interceptions compared to only 15 touchdowns and didn’t reach the 3,000-yard passing plateau.

Head coach Lance Leipold said he knew Donovan would make strides from his junior to senior year.

“Any time you’re a second year starter, the game slows down,” Leipold said. “Everything falls in place. You think like your coordinator thinks.”

Zebrowski also pinpointed Donovan’s preparation as a turning point in his growth as a quarterback.

“He’s become more of a student of the game,” Zebrowski said. “He came here [after high school] and could get by off ability. I think he’s learned the last couple years how important it is to watch tape.”

With the ’Hawks looking to return to the national championship game for the fifth straight time, Zebrowski anticipates Donovan’s play to rise.

“The bigger the game, the more excited he gets,” Zebrowski said. “That’s just him being competitive. He wants to be up with two outs and the bases loaded. I think he always wants it to be third and eight, down four. He thrives on those situations.”

When asked to sum up the legacy he and the 18 other seniors have put together as they enter their final home game, Donovan wasn’t ready to do that.

“It’s unfinished.”

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