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Harty: Audlehelm, Donatell provide spark

[ 3 ] September 20, 2011 |

One grew up in a small town in Iowa; the other grew up all over the place.

One stands about 5-foot-8 and was a prolific receiver in high school, once catching 22 passes and scoring seven touchdowns in a game.

The other stands about 6-2 and was an all-conference quarterback and safety in high school.

Iowa football players Joe Audlehelm and Tom Donatell come from different backgrounds, they’re built differently, and they traveled different paths to get where they are now.

What they have in common, though, is a willingness to help their team in any way possible.

Most of their contributions go unnoticed, but that changed Saturday when Audlehelm and Donatell made key tackles on special teams late in the game to help secure Iowa’s 31-27 come-from-behind victory over Pittsburgh.

Iowa had struggled to cover kickoffs in the first two games and it was starting to bother some of the players, including Donatell.

“I think it was just (a case of us saying) enough,” Donatell said Tuesday at Iowa’s weekly press gathering in preparation for Saturday’s game against Louisiana-Monroe. “We had been letting down our team so much in the last couple weeks that we thought that we needed to make a play as a special teams unit.

“And those last two kickoffs showed it.”

The players were mobbed by their teammates after each made the tackle. That partly was because of the unusual circumstance in the game with Iowa mounting a historical comeback, but also because teammates love to see somebody who deserves it being rewarded.

The fact that Audlehelm and Donatell are walk-ons made the moment more special and it also showed that it takes a group effort to win a football game.

The star players, of course, have to do their part, but so do the unheralded players, and usually without being noticed.

“You can’t really put a value on it because if we’re going to be successful, we need everybody moving in the right direction,” said starting middle linebacker James Morris, who was a key contributor on specials teams as a true freshman last season. “Everybody has a role, and they’ve got to understand what their role is and then try to fulfill it to the best of their ability.”

Audlehelm and Donatell are the latest in a long line of Iowa players to make an impact on special teams.

Some of the players, including current NFL veterans Dallas Clark, Bob Sanders and Sean Considine, made their first contributions on special teams before becoming stars as position players in college.

But for many others, the chance to play on special teams is where it begins and ends.

Audlehelm is a senior and he plays receiver, which is one of the deepest positions on the team. So the chance of him contributing beyond special teams isn’t great.

Donatell is listed as a senior, but he still has one more season of eligibility beyond this fall.

He came to Iowa as a quarterback and then switched to linebacker after his freshman season before moving to defensive back prior to the 2009 season.

He’s now back at linebacker despite only weighing about 205 pounds. He likely will stay there given the lack of depth after backup middle linebacker Bruce Davis quit the team Monday.

“They were light at linebacker, and I’m happy to do anything for the team to help them out,” Donatell said.

By helping out, Donatell means putting his body in harms way because that’s what happens every time he and Audlehlem and the rest of the players on the kickoff team race down the field looking to make a tackle.

It’s one of the most dangerous things to do in sports, so much so that the NFL moved kickoffs up from the 30- to the 35-yard line.

“Kickoffs are a little dangerous at times,” Donatell said. “But you just need to take one for the team and go in there and try to make a play.”

That’s another way of saying that it takes large amounts of courage, humility and toughness to play on special teams.

Audlehelm and Donatell arrived at Iowa under different circumstances, but with the same goal to be a part of something much bigger than them.

For Audlehelm, it was almost his destiny to be an Iowa football player. He grew up in Van Wert cheering for the Hawkeyes and after a stint in junior college, he joined the Iowa program in 2009 as a walk-on.

“I grew up watching the Hawkeyes, and I always wanted to be here and I’ve always wanted to be a part of this team,” said Audlehelm, who in addition to catching 22 passes in one high school game also lettered four years in wrestling and baseball.

Donatell, on the other hand, was born in Olympia, Wash., and has lived all over the country as the son of veteran NFL assistant coach Ed Donatell, who currently coaches the secondary for the San Francisco 49ers.

Tom Donatell’s hometown is listed as Atlanta, Ga., in the Iowa media guide, but he also lived in Green Bay, Wis., for part of high school.

His father’s relationship with Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz helped lead Donatell to the University of Iowa. The younger Donatell got to know Ferentz while Ferentz’s son, Brian Ferentz, played for the Atlanta Falcons in 2006.

Ed Donatell was Atlanta’s defensive coordinator at the time.

“He came to a practice one day and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you take a visit,’” Tom Donatell said of coach Ferentz. “And I was like, ‘Alright.’

“And I loved it when I got here and the rest is history, I guess.”

Donatell said his father also loves having his son play for Ferentz.

“He respects this coaching staff and this program so much,” Donatell said of his father. “He just loved the program and steered me towards this.”

Donatell said he has thought about what would’ve happened if he had gone to a smaller college and played quarterback.

But he has no regrets about being a walk-on at Iowa or about his unheralded role on the team.

“I wonder sometimes, but I love it here,” Donatell said. “I wouldn’t have it any other way. I really love being here and I’m just excited for this season.”

Iowa fans are glad to have him and Audlehelm, even more so after what they did Saturday.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes Football

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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