Donnell was on the team last year in a reserve role -- a special-teams player who was working to develop as an offensive asset at tight end. He was a basketball player early in life and a quarterback when he arrived at Grambling for college, so tight end was new to him and he had to learn it. He's still learning it.
"One of the big things is his confidence level," Giants tight ends coach Kevin M. Gilbride said Tuesday. "He didn't play with a level of confidence last year that he's now playing with in the passing game, certainly, and that he's starting to develop in the run game, as well."
That's a word -- "develop" -- that gets tossed around and often ignored in today's hyper-impatient NFL. We hear so much about how precious those 53-man roster spots are that we forget that some of them are occupied by players who aren't ready yet to make major contributions. Every roster has at least a handful of developmental players -- guys who aren't yet ready to start or even be active on Sundays but who've shown at least some inkling of promise that makes it worth the team's time to keep working with them throughout the week.
Donnell was such a player last year. Heck, he was such a player as recently as August. In many ways, he's still such a player. But he's better, for example, at getting open now than he was a year ago or even a few months ago, and the Giants' coaching staff can get really specific if you want to know how.
"One specific is a release off the line of scrimmage where a linebacker has inside leverage and he's going to try to collision you," Gilbride said. "In the past, what Larry would do is just try to bow around the defender, and that's not a good thing. What the defender does at that point is, he collisions you and widens you outside of where we want you to be. It muddies the picture, the whole picture for the quarterback.
"And what [Donnell] has done is, he's taken the coaching point of, if the defender takes that approach, attack to his inside leverage and then be violent with that defender. Don't try to bow around him. And you'll see, as you see him running routes, he'll take his single hand and swipe down and he slips right by defenders. And that puts defenders in an adverse situation and gets him an opportunity to get down the field."
That's one example. "One of many," Gilbride said. But it didn't happen overnight. Donnell's improvement is an example of slow, persistent work and development -- a player who understands the value of learning and practicing things with which he's not automatically comfortable.
"It doesn't necessarily just 'click.' You have to do it," Gilbride said. "And that's what he's done. Instead of continuing to take his bad habits and bang his head against the wall because it's not working ... he tries to put it into practice. And when you attempt to put it into practice and then you have some success with it, then moving forward, you like to keep that approach."
Donnell is still just 25 years old, and in spite of the obvious gains he's made as a player, he remains obviously inconsistent. Three touchdown catches one week, no catches at all the next. Two fumbles this past week in a close game in Dallas. Some weeks he's a good run-blocker, other weeks he gets overrun in the run game. That's his next frontier, and it's an important one.
"Finishing blocks with effort and strength in his hands," Gilbride said, "that's another area that still does need to continue to improve. But when he does play that way with confidence, he does well."
Donnell is still developing, so the gains are interspersed with setbacks and struggles. The encouraging thing for the Giants is that Donnell is an eager and willing student, and the successes this year are proof that his hard work and open-mindedness to teaching can pay off. That makes them believe the development will continue, and that he'll continue to get better. And as the Giants work this year to incorporate all of their new, young faces into their new offense, they need as many guys like that as possible.