Solid work ethic defines ex-Pitt All-American Donald as draft nears

Jerry DiPaola
| Sunday, May 4, 2014, 9:57 p.m.

Anita Goggins can't help herself. Those videotapes of her son Aaron Donald always are worth another look.

“I still sit here in front of the computer and look at the award ceremonies and cry,” she said. “He's really done it.”

Donald's long journey from Penn Hills High School — where he was lightly recruited — to Pitt and national stardom will reach the highest level of football Thursday. If the national analysts' nearly unanimous conclusions are correct, Donald will hear his name called in the first half of the first round of the NFL Draft.

An All-American defensive tackle who led the nation last season with 28 12 tackles for loss, he will be the first Pitt player drafted since 2011.

“So overwhelming,” Goggins said. “He showed everybody who Aaron Donald is.”

Near the end of the 2013 season, Goggins and Donald's father Archie Donald accompanied their son on a cross-country tour of the U.S. while he was awarded the four most prestigious honors a collegiate defensive player can win — the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award, Outland Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award.

At that point, Donald was ranked the No. 5 defensive tackle and projected to be drafted in the second round, according to Then, he went to the Senior Bowl. During practice, he pancaked Baylor guard Cyril Richardson, who is 4 inches taller and 44 pounds heavier than the 6-foot-1, 285-pound Donald. When Richardson later teamed with Notre Dame's Zack Martin, the No. 1 guard in the draft (according to DraftScout), it took both of them and every one of their combined 637 pounds to keep Donald out of the backfield.

Early last season, when Duke's linemen neglected to block him, Donald was so quick off the snap that he tackled two players — running back Josh Snead and quarterback Brandon Connette — during the handoff.

“This guy was unblockable,” ESPN draft analyst Kevin Weidl said. “One-on-one, he was destroying dudes.”

Weidl, a Mount Lebanon native, has monitored Donald's progress over the past eight months and marvels at how dramatically his stock has risen.

“If you had asked me (earlier this year) if I thought Donald would be in the mid-first round, I would have thought you were crazy,” Weidl said. “But this guy has checked every box (scouts use) when scouting a player.”

Weidl said Donald fits best in a 4-3 scheme that needs quick linemen who can use leverage to get underneath blockers. se leverage to get underneath blockers.

That would put Donald with teams such as the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys. Many mock drafts predict Donald going to the Bears at No. 14. ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper and Todd McShay rank Donald the No. 1 defensive tackle.

The Cowboys, who pick 16th, were one of only three teams (Rams and Steelers are the others) who invited Donald to visit their facility.

“When he is unable to win with quickness, he can kind of get pushed around a little bit,” Weidl said, “but with the scheme the Bears use, their guys get upfield and get penetration.” Donald is shorter and lighter than many linemen, but he turned himself into a productive player through diligent weight room training.

Growing up, he often woke up with his father at 4 a.m. so he could finish his daily weightlifting regimen — something he started at the age of 12 — before school.

“I put a lot of hard work, a lot of early-morning wakeups, a lot of blood, sweat and tears into football,” Donald said. “(My father) always said, 'When (the opponent) is sleeping in, you're working.' ”

Donald said Pitt coach Paul Chryst gave him some advice about preparing for the draft.

“He told me to do what I've been doing; it's only football,” Donald said. “Be yourself and enjoy it.”

Donald repaid Chryst by showing up at several Pitt practices this spring — his eligibility exhausted — while keeping up a five-day-a-week workout schedule. Not only did he watch practice, but he worked with the Pitt defensive linemen on the field and in video sessions.

“Why not help the younger guys?” Donald said.

Pitt strength coach Ross Kolodziej likens Donald to “a man cutting himself out of stone.”

“He is a self-made man,” Kolodziej said. “He would be the standard of a guy who came in here and left no stone unturned.”

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