Thunder lineman McDonough boosts stock with versatility

TRIBUNE PHOTO: DIEGO G. DIAZ - Jake McDonough (9) lines up to the right of Portland Thunder center John Collins as Kyle Rowley calls signals, with Sam Longo (73) also prepared to block and John Martinez in the backfield as the fullback.Jake McDonough has been on an odyssey over the course of a single Arena Football League season, bouncing around from one position to the next as the Portland Thunder find needs that the 6-5, 305-pounder is willing and able to fill.

McDonough has played defensive end, defensive tackle, offensive guard, fullback and tight end as well as on special teams for the Thunder, whose final home game of 2015 is 7 p.m. Saturday at Moda Center against the Las Vegas Outlaws.

“I feel like I haven’t had a home this season,” McDonough says, with a smile. “I’ve been constantly switching positions. The coaches have had me playing everywhere.”

McDonough’s versatility and willingness to be used in different positions has been extraordinarily beneficial for the Thunder.

“He’s done a great job filling in where he’s needed to,” Portland coach Mike Hohensee says. “He’s done a great job at tight end the last few games, probably the best games this team has played, so we haven’t skipped a beat.”

It also isn’t the worst thing in the world for McDonough, personally, as he tries to make himself more marketable to NFL teams.

“I’ve had the chance to develop my skills over the year,” he says. “I’ve grown over the year. I have a greater understanding of the game, and it’s developed me as a football player.

“You never know what these teams are looking for. There’s a few teams who have reached out and said that they’re willing to convert a defensive lineman to an offensive lineman.

“For me to come out and show teams I can play something else, that could help me become more marketable to save a roster spot, being able to play either-or. I want to be able to say, ‘I can do whatever you want me to. I just want to play football.’”

McDonough’s strength probably is as a defensive lineman. An all-Big 12 selection in 2012 at Iowa State and native of West Des Moines, Iowa, he has bounced around the NFL some already, coming close to breaking through. McDonough, 25, originally was with the New York Jets, where he says he was second string on the defensive line before a hamstring injury before the 2013 season. He was then signed to the Indianapolis Colts practice squad where he finished the season.

McDonough says the Colts signed a veteran free agent and asked McDonoough to develop his game in the AFL, which led him to the Thunder last season.

He was then in a training camp with the Washington Redskins, but was not able to make the team, so he returned to the Thunder to continue improving.

“I’ve had quite a journey,” he says. “My defensive skills have improved since college. I’ve been around some great defensive line coaches who have helped me tremendously. I’ve gained a lot of moves and techniques. I’m very confident in my ability to play defensive line. I play with a lot of power and a lot of passion. Teams can see that.”

Having been so close to the NFL has made McDonough very hungry to get back to that level.

“I can play at that level,” he says. “It’s all about timing. It’s a matter of when, and what team, and what the best fit is for me. I just have to be ready for that call.

“I’m constantly preparing myself to be the best I can be, whether that’s getting extra wind sprints or doing what I need to do to better myself with extra film.

“It’s just made me so hungry. It’s like giving you a taste of a dessert, something really sweet that you really love and you crave it and want more of it. I’m going to do whatever I have to do to get back.”

Jake McDonoughMcDonough has played both ways during a few Thunder games this season, but lately he has mostly been on offense, first at fullback, then at guard and the last two games at tight end.

He has worked hard to become confident in his ability to block.

“I’m gaining confidence,” McDonough says. “You can’t be nervous going onto the field. I go out there thinking I’m a defensive lineman, but I have to be confident in my ability, that I’ve done the preparation I need to do and coach is putting me in the best position I can possibly be in. I have nothing to worry about, just go out and play.”

In the AFL, tight end is basically an offensive tackle who spends almost the entire time blocking but is technically eligible to catch the ball. And McDonough says he is ready to make a catch when and if it is needed.

When he was in eighth grade, McDonough was nowhere near the mountain of the man he is today. He remembers himself as a skinny 6-2, 160-pounder who ran cross country and played receiver.

While he has not yet caught a pass this season, the Thunder do have a “tight end pop” play where McDonough would go out for a pass. Portland tried it in last week’s 42-40 loss at Spokane, but the Shock defense broke up the play.

“Now I’m bigger and stronger, but I can still do the same thing, just not as fast as I used to,” McDonough says. “Even though you’re always beating up your hands on the offensive and defensive line, I still feel like I have my hands with me.”

While he is mostly playing offense now, McDonough is always trying to convince his coaches to put him back on the field whenever the Thunder are on defense.

“I’ve told coaches (I want to play both ways) many times, and I’m sure they’re tired of hearing about it,” he says.

“I’m always hungry to get back out on the field and in the middle of the game, I’m saying, ‘You can still use me on defense if you want me to. Wherever I can help the team win, I’m there.’”

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