Pitt's Donald one of nation's most disruptive defenders
Backed into a corner by tape recorders, cameras and reporters asking a lot of questions, Aaron Donald was out of his element Monday in a Pitt conference room.
He's much better suited to wrestling a 320-pound center into the dirt, even if two opponents decide to rush him at the same time.
“Football is fun,” he said, summing up his life's mantra in three simple words.
But Donald has been known to raise his voice and wear the mantle of leadership when necessary.
“I spoke up last week during the (Georgia Tech) game,” he said proudly. “Nothing major, just making sure my guys are all together.”
And that's what Donald, Pitt's All-American candidate at defensive tackle, has become in his senior season: His team's best chance to stay together, salvage the season and reach a bowl.
“He's a special player,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “We need him to continue to be more special.”
After eight games — and with Notre Dame and ABC-TV coming to Heinz Field on Saturday night — Donald has become a dominant player. He was named ACC Defensive Player of the Week on Monday after recording six tackles for loss against Georgia Tech, the most in the FBS this season.
He leads the nation in TFLs (2.4 per game, a total of 19) and is third in sacks (1.1, nine). He also has eight quarterback hurries. With a total of 27 1⁄2 career sacks, he is college football's active leader.
Chryst has dealt with his share of disruptive defenders, and he said Donald is especially troublesome because he's difficult to avoid.
“The good thing about the way he plays is he is able to affect the play whether you are going to him or away from him,” Chryst said. “That's what stood out to me.”No one will accuse Donald of trying to seize the spotlight.
“He's not giving speeches,” Chryst said. “I don't think that's what inspires him, so he doesn't think that's what he needs to do to inspire others. What better way than to have your actions speak.”
Donald's name has surfaced on several mock NFL drafts, and he may become the first Pitt player picked since 2011. Donald said he doesn't pay attention to such things.
“I still got four more games in college to worry about,” he said.
ESPN college football analyst and talent scout Kevin Weidl said Donald has a future as an interior pass rusher in the NFL.
“I think he's ultimately going to be a reserve, sub-package kind of defensive tackle,” Weidl said. “His fit is going to be in a 4-3 scheme.
“He lacks ideal size on the interior in terms of being able to anchor (6-foot, 285 pounds). His game is predicated on quickness and disruption. With his hand quickness and ability to counter-punch, he is tough to handle.
“Anytime, you can get an interior pass rusher, that's the best pass rush you can get because he is coming into the quarterback's face.”Weidl said Donald reminds him of former Penn State defensive tackle Jordan Hill, who was drafted in the third round this year by the Seattle Seahawks (87th overall).
“He will go in the same range where Hill came off the board, actually going a little bit higher because he has been so productive.”
Jerry DiPaola is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @JDiPaola_Trib.
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