Six of the 20 players who made the opening day roster of the Portland Thunder in 2014 are back and participating in camp in 2015. While other teams might lock those six into their spots and work on building the team around them, the Thunder are working on converting nose tackle Jake McDonough into an offensive lineman.
The conversion works out for both sides, as McDonough seeks to show off his versatility for “a few NFL teams” who are interested in him as an offensive line prospect. The Thunder, meanwhile, expect to be without stalwart guard Max Jean-Gilles for a while as he recovers from an injury he sustained late in the 2014 campaign, and would love nothing more than to have a guy on the roster who can play both offensive line and defensive line at a high level.
The idea of McDonough becoming an offensive lineman was born of necessity. With Max Jean-Gilles out due to injury, the Thunder entered the 2014 season finale thin at offensive line, with no backup linemen available. McDonough ended up spending much of the game out on the field matched up against James Ruffin, the AFL’s Defensive Lineman of the Year and the league leader in sacks.
The 6’5”, 280-pound McDonough managed to keep quarterback Darron Thomas upright and didn’t give up a sack to Ruffin.
After the game, he signed with an NFL team for the third time since signing with the Thunder, this time by the Washington Redskins.
“I have a few NFL teams that are looking at me for offensive line. It also shows that I can be versatile,” said McDonough about the opportunity to play on the other side of the ball. “I’ve been told to expect to play some defense still, but it’s good to learn new positions to show that I can play anything a team asks of me.”
The man who is working on helping McDonough the most is in a different place in his career. Max Jean-Gilles played five years in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles. He was the lone man to start every game for the Thunder offense before an injury late in the year ended his season prematurely. As a well-established veteran presence, Jean-Gilles is helping coach McDonough to take over his position at guard while focusing on recovering from his injury.
“Max has been helping me out big-time. He helps me out before practice, after practice, whenever I need help, he’s there,” said McDonough. “Max has turned into the greatest coach that anyone could have. I’ve noticed, from Day 1 to Day 2, huge improvements.”
Jean-Gilles isn’t alone helping McDonough transition. Clay Harrell, the lone holdover from last season’s coaching staff, coached McDonough as a defensive lineman last year and will help him learn the game from the offensive lineman’s point of view this season.
“He just needs to keep doing what he’s doing. At the pace he’s set with how much his technique has improved, by the time camp is over and we’re getting ready to kick off against LA, he’ll be in good shape,” said Harrell. “Some days he’s probably not going to make such drastic improvements, and he’s got to not get frustrated and stay with the process.”
McDonough doesn’t seem to expect to gain as much as he did after his first day; he’s taken well to the rest of the offensive linemen and he’s working on adapting to their mindset. Before he went in the game against Spokane last season, someone told him to think of offensive line like playing defense in basketball – just keep your man in front of you.
The rest of the offensive line has made an effort to add to that wisdom.
“I think the funniest thing was [Max Jean-Gilles] and [Thunder center] John Collins basically said, ‘You’re coming over with all this athletic ability – try and throw the athletic ability out of the window and work on your technique,’” said McDonough. “You can’t just expect to go out there and manhandle somebody without any technique, because you’ll just end up on the ground.
“It’s been an adjustment for me, coming from the defense, where it’s always ‘Attack, attack, attack,’ and you get to the offensive mentality, and you’re thinking, ‘Okay, relax, stay in front of him, let him come to me, time your strikes.’ But being a defensive lineman, you know what they’re trying to do; you know where they’re trying to go, so that’s definitely helped me a lot.”
While McDonough is set to start at the guard position, because it’s the easiest position to transfer to, Harrell and McDonough see scenarios where he may line up as a tight end, defensive tackle, or possibly even serve as an emergency center. When it comes time to learn yet another position, McDonough will continue his crash course in line play from Harrell.
“Clay’s a big reason why I’m excited to be here; he’s a great coach. He’s been a mentor to me throughout this whole time. I feel like I can talk to him about anything,” said McDonough. “So I’m excited to be back and learn from one of the greatest coaches in this Arena game. He’s been a veteran player and this is his third or fourth year coaching.”
Being able to adapt is something that lots of Arena Football players are forced to come by. McDonough, for example, signed with the Thunder in late 2013 – since then, he’s moved from Iowa, his home, to Indianapolis when he was signed by the Colts, back to Iowa, then to Portland for Thunder training camp and the early part of the 2014 season. From there, he was called up to the Jets, which required a move to New York. Upon release, he returned to Portland and helped the team down the stretch before being signed by the Washington Redskins. When Washington released him toward the end of training camp, he returned to Iowa and found a spot with the upstart FXFL, so he joined the Omaha Mammoths. When their season ended, he went back to Iowa to work at the YMCA as a youth team leader before coming back out to Portland for this year’s camp.
After learning four different systems and three different jobs in a year, what’s picking up a new position or two?