Ex-Pitt tackle Donald determined to succeed in NFL

Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald practices Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013.
Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald practices Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2013.
Photo by Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
| Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

INDIANAPOLIS — Wherever Aaron Donald goes during the NFL Combine, he keeps hearing the same name over and over.

Geno Atkins.

Donald, Pitt's defensive tackle nonpareil, wouldn't mind if it that comparison stays with him as long as his NFL career lasts.

Like Atkins, Donald is a bit undersized going into the NFL Draft — he measured out Saturday at 6-0 12 and 280 pounds — and there are questions if his lack of exceptionally long arms, massive size and basketball player's height will limit him as he goes up against offensive linemen five inches taller and 40 to 50 pounds heavier. Atkins was 6-1 and 293 pounds coming out of Georgia in 2010 and subsequently lasted until the fourth round, but he's one of the NFL's best defensive linemen for the Cincinnati Bengals.

Last season, Patriots coach Bill Belichick said if that draft was done over again now, Atkins might be the No. 1 overall pick.

“I love the way he plays. I watched him a lot, watched him a lot my junior year in college. He's explosive, fun to watch,” Donald said Saturday. “He just makes a ton of plays.

What he's doing in the NFL is amazing, (and) it's an honor to even be compared to a guy like that.”

It's a comparison Donald might not have heard following his junior year. But during a time when many top underclassmen don't make it to their senior seasons before turning pro, Donald had a breakthrough final season at Pitt. He won the Lombardi award for top lineman/linebacker in college football, the Nagurski for best defensive player and the Outland Trophy for best interior lineman, among others. It was an awards sweep unlike any Pitt player in history, including Hugh Green.

Donald, the former Penn Hills High star, shows the drive to excel and overachieve that NFL coaches love, even if his measurables might scare NFL personnel directors.

“(I) love him on tape — he's explosive and he's quick,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said of Donald, who is down about eight pounds from the Senior Bowl.

“It never got to me,” Donald said of all the talk about his size. “Thinking about it isn't going to get me taller. All I can (do) is go play the game of football, the way I play it: hard-nosed, out there trying to make plays.”

The combine is important for Donald — he will work out Monday — as he attempts to prove he can channel his competitiveness into the NFL and overcome some of those perceived physical limitations.

Like Atkins, he is seen as an exceptional three-technique tackle, who lines up on the outside shoulder of a guard rather than a five-technique tackle, who lines up on the outside shoulder of a tackle.

“I'm (going to) continue to try to open their eyes that I'm an athlete, I'm athletic, just show that I can move,” Donald said. “I feel like a lot of things I showed that I can do already.”

He also plans to “shock” the league with his workout performance.

“I feel like I can make an impact right away, feel like I can come in and have trust in the coaches and playbook and make plays right away,” said Donald, who talked with the Cowboys, among other teams, to date.

He's already shown them at the Senior Bowl, where he won 12 of 15 head-on-head battles with offensive linemen, earning him the award for the best player in practice. Utah offensive lineman Tyler Larsen called him, by far, the best lineman he opposed.

“All I can do is do my part and keep trying to open up eyes with what I did on the football field, what I did in my career on film,” Donald said. “Just go out there and try to compete and shock a couple of more people.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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