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Intense McDonell encouraged about progress of Idaho’s offensive line

Idaho offensive line coach John McDonell is happy he has found his way back home. (Dan Pelle)
Idaho offensive line coach John McDonell is happy he has found his way back home. (Dan Pelle)

MOSCOW, Idaho – The second floor Kibbie Dome office is large enough for two desks, a mini fridge, a flat screen TV that hangs on the wall and not much else. This is the space John McDonell shares with Jason Gesser, the quarterback he helped recruit to Washington State more than 13 years ago.

McDonell and Gesser are now members of the Idaho football coaching staff, and often they find themselves talking about the early days at WSU.

“I can remember watching the tapes of Jason Gesser at St. Louis High School,” said McDonell, the Vandals’ first-year offensive line coach. “We were all in there and we just loved the way he played.”

Working alongside Gesser serves as a reminder to McDonell – a Spokane native and Gonzaga Prep graduate – of his far-flung coaching career and how grateful he was earlier this year to bring his family back to the Inland Northwest.

But Gesser isn’t the only one. Just down the hallway, there are other links to McDonell’s past.

Torey Hunter, a former Cougar whose college career overlapped with McDonell’s time in Pullman, is the newest UI football assistant (his office is a few feet from McDonell and Gesser’s). And UI coach Robb Akey played for and worked with McDonell at Weber State before joining him and Mike Price as an assistant at Wazzu.

The two have been reunited on the Palouse, only this time Akey is the boss and they’re just across the Washington-Idaho border.

“We kind of wanted to get back west,” said McDonell, who’s made stops at Stanford, Notre Dame and most recently Memphis, Bowling Green and Purdue. “… We were very happy to find a way back home.”

The first months on the job haven’t been easy. McDonell (pronounced MAC-done-el) has been forced to mix and match players on the Idaho’s O-line, which was already inexperienced along the interior, after a series of injuries. Partly as a result, the Vandals (1-4) have the third-worst rushing attack in the nation.

But after nearly three decades of coaching, McDonell, 52, views all these challenges as part of the business he’s in. Plus, he’s encouraged by recent improvements his group has shown in pass protection.

“Very seldom do you go without getting someone hurt,” he said. “You have to adjust. People have to step up. But so far these kids have been great. They work their tails off. The transition has been very smooth.”

McDonell, almost fully bald now, is just an intense as he was in the late ’90s, Gesser said. He still gets in the face of his players and becomes animated on the practice field, sometimes prompting Gesser and other coaches to chuckle.

Yet he has a knack for finding ways to relate with players.

“He’s up-tempo and he’ll be your biggest critic,” said Mike Marboe, UI’s starting center. “He’ll be your biggest fan at the same time too. It’s a good way that he coaches, and it works.”

More than anything else, McDonell noted two things he enjoys about coaching: the bond he’s forged with fellow coaches and the players that he’s helped mold. He mentioned Akey (“a very close friend”), Bill Doba and Chris and Pete Tormey, both fellow Gonzaga Prep products.

McDonell also brought up Dustin Keller, the New York Jets tight end who was under his tutelage at Purdue. Keller came into the Boilermakers’ program as a raw, lightly recruited prospect and ended up a first round NFL draft pick in 2008.

“That’s the rewarding part of coaching,” McDonell said, “when you take a young man, when you can see him take those steps and by the time they are a fifth-year senior … he’s grown up to be a man with a chance to live a dream.”