In the past 21 months, offensive lineman Navaughn Donaldson, has been through his fair share of trials and tribulations. In the 2019 regular season finale against Duke, Donaldson suffered a lower leg injury, which forced him to miss the Walk-on Independence Bowl against Louisiana Tech. The injury lingered into the spring, as Donaldson then missed Miami’s only four spring practices.
Thereafter, the injury appeared to be more serious than a standard ankle injury, as Donaldson was the only player not ready for the start of fall camp as it was announced that the veteran offensive lineman had undergone major knee surgery after the 2019 season. In June 2020, the Canes most consistent fixture on an otherwise underwhelming offensive line group, announced he would be redshirting for the 2020 season.
While still retaining his redshirt status, Navaughn returned to the field for the final month of the 2020 season. In December, Donaldson returned in a game against the Duke Blue Devils that Miami won 48-0. According to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Navaughn played 26 snaps in that game, did not allow a sack, and provided a much needed boost to the run blocking game where he earned a 75.3 PFF grade.
“That’s not an easy rehab that Navaughn had to go through,” HC Manny Diaz said. “One of the great things about this year not counting against your eligibility, you don’t have to worry about redshirting, worry about anything. He can just work his way back in.”
Going into this year, Donaldson is currently projected to be starter and self-proclaimed that he is “in the best shape possible.” However, the return to the football field has been far from a linear path and not one where Donaldson simply opted to red-shirt to get in better shape. Rather, it was an option out of necessity.
“First was trying to walk,” Donaldson said. “For six months, I couldn’t put pressure on my leg…I couldn’t do anything but go home and do treatment. I couldn’t even drive my car. Being hurt made me take a step back and understand myself better. I came back mentally, physically, and emotionally stronger.”
After talking to family and the coaching staff I decided to redshirt and focus on me this season.— Navaughn Donaldson (@55_world_) June 24, 2020
The 6’6”, 350-pound mauler has played in 37 games for Miami and could play a big role in 2021. To this point, he has worked predominantly with the first team at right guard. In assimilating back to football after being mentally, physically, and emotionally knocked down, Donaldson has specifically worked with Miami coaches on his nutrition, shedding unhealthy weight (through a strict diet regimen), and changing his body composition by working on body flexibility. He has also been putting in extra cardio and overall technique.
During his redshirt year and this offseason, Donaldson has also had an opportunity to lead by example, which is actually something he has been doing his entire career at the U since his arrival in 2017. And this year, he will be relied upon not only for his physical presence, but also veteran mental aptitude.
“I enjoyed this offseason the most out of all of them,” Donaldson said. “I got to know my teammates better and the new coaching staff. It has been a great year so far and I just want to continue to work and lead by example.”
Caught him mid-sentence, but UM OL Navaughn Donaldson touches on being fully healthy again: pic.twitter.com/BZfShJlX9o— Khobi Price (@khobi_price) August 20, 2021
Donaldson’s Undergraduate Transition - Leading By Example:
With his redshirt season, Navaughn indubitably had the prerequisite previous experience as a starter as a true freshman/undergraduate to aid in his peers’ growth (34 starts and over 2,000 snaps). For background, the four-star product enrolled early at Miami going into his freshman year in order to work with then offensive line coach, Stacy Searels, as well as team nutritionists, so that he would be ready to make an immediate impact on the field at the collegiate level. During his recruiting process, Donaldson decided to stay local at Miami, despite strong bids from in-state rivals FSU and Florida, and out-of-state bids from UNC, Auburn, and Georgia. The latter of which involved heavy recruiting by then Bulldog coach, Mark Richt.
Donaldson was largely regarded as a top-100 overall prospect heading into his freshman season. He was recruited by then Miami Head Coach, Al Golden, and he opted to stay in Miami largely to be close to his family. Despite Golden leaving the Canes, there was still some familiarity with Richt taking over Miami’s program, and he remained committed to the Canes. At that point, he was the gem of Miami’s 2017 class based on his top notch run-blocking and overall physical traits.
We've got another first timer!— Canes Football (@CanesFootball) November 13, 2017
Congrats to Navaughn Donaldson on earning his first ACC Offensive Lineman of the Week award. pic.twitter.com/0AKxIVgAT5
As Donaldson entered the Canes program as a 6’5”, 330 pounder, he was considered a versatile lineman who could plug in at either the inside or outside. Searels told 247 Sports, “I’ve always thought Navaughn had the ability to play tackle. I would think he’ll get a shot there early, but he has the ability to play multiple positions and the more positions a kid can play the more valuable he is. I think he certainly has the size, range, and athleticism to play offensive tackle.”
And, even though Donaldson felt most comfortable at Right Tackle going into his freshman year, he ended up starting ten games at Right Guard in 2017. He was plagued with minor injuries his freshman year as he missed two games, but was talented enough to receive ESPN Freshman All-American Honors.
As his career continued at Miami, he exhibited another strong trait by always showing a willingness to play at positions that the Canes needed him at the most. In his sophomore year, he started his first six games at Right Tackle and then shifted back to Right Guard for the final seven contests. In addition, when fellow lineman Corey Gaynor was plagued by injuries going into the 2019 season, Donaldson was open to receiving reps at Center. However, by the time the season started, Donaldson shifted over to Left Guard, where he became a mainstay and started all 12 games prior to the Duke injury. Notably, in the opener against a loaded Florida Gator defensive front, Donaldson was the only starting Offensive Lineman that did not allow a single quarterback pressure. This offseason, he has predominantly worked with the first-unit at right guard but has again taken snaps at center.
Until his injury, Donaldson may have been the only bright spot for the Canes offensive line in 2019 - an abhorrent group that gave up 51 sacks. In general, over the past few years there has not been much consistency with the offensive line, but there have been improvements.
Specifically, in 2019, they allowed 51 sacks (3rd most nationally) had 140 QB pressures allowed (2nd worst in NCAA), and had a struggling run block that averaged 118.1 yards per game (120th out of 130 teams). They also allowed 4.25 sacks per game (127th out of 130 teams).
In 2020, there were improvements but the Canes still allowed allowed 30 sacks in their 11 games played, or 2.73 sacks per game (T-98th out of 124 teams). As for Tackles for Loss Allowed in 2020, Miami allowed 7.91 TFL per game. The 87 TFLs, which resulted in 310 lost yards ranked 117th out of 124 teams.
Despite the turbulence, Donaldson has remained loyal to Miami since he originally committed in the Summer of 2015, as part of the 2017 class. His gargantuan presence has been a steady fixture and one that many on the team are looking forward to this season:
“He has been working his tail off in the weight room and he has been running very well,” veteran RB, Cam’ron Harris said. “Running behind him when he takes on two people and opens up the holes, that is what I need.”
“It really helps us to have him back,” Offensive Coordinator, Rhett Lashlee said. “He is obviously huge and when he is healthy, he gives us some strength and the ability to have a people mover for a lack of a better word. He is also an older guy that has a lot of experience. I think he adds a lot to our room there.”
“Man, Navaughn is actually running,” wide receiver Mike Harley said. “I have never seen him run before. His freshman year, he would pull and knock somebody off their feet and now he is actually running [again]. In the meeting rooms in the morning, we will see where we mess up and where we do great and Navaughn is somebody that is banging the defensive ends and he looks really great. He has been opening up lanes for the running backs and he is getting better every day.”
Prior to his redshirt season, there were some rumblings that Donaldson could sneak his way into the NFL Draft. At this point, he definitely has the body frame and potential as a former top-100 recruit, but he will need to put it all together on the field at a top tier level in order to catapult his draft stock. In addition, he could metaphorically pave the way for underclassmen such as potential starting left guard and second-year player, Jalen Rivers.
In the meantime, if the veteran can continue to exhibit strong leadership qualities, it will not only pay dividends for himself and the Miami program in 2021, but could aid Donaldson in his goals to achieve success at the next level. Considering the adversity Donaldson has had to overcome the past 21 months, something tells me the big-bodied offensive lineman is now ready to pave whatever comes his way on the football field.