Aaron Donald will almost certainly be a 1st team All-American by the end of the season. His numbers have been eye-popping. Anyone who has watched him face double-teams and occasional triple-teams comes away impressed and amazed by how he still manages to be disruptive.
Donald wreaks havoc on opposing backfields with his remarkable first-step quickness, yet displays enough strength and power to win with physicality. With few offensive linemen capable of dealing with defenders with diverse games, Donald has consistently delivered disruptive plays for the Panthers’ defense. He leads the nation with 22.5 tackles for loss and is tied for sixth in the country with 10 sacks. Those numbers are impressive for a pass rusher, particularly an interior defender rarely given free runs to the quarterback off the edge.
His performance this year has him drawing NFL comparisons to Geno Atkins and there is no longer draftnik talk (for the moment) about how he will fall in the draft because he isn’t the prototypical DT size.
He’s also a finalist for virtually every college football honor in which he is eligible.
Pitt senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald was named one of five finalists Thursday for the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, which is presented annually to college football’s most outstanding defensive player.
Donald will travel to Charlotte on Dec. 9 for the Charlotte Touchdown Club’s banquet where the winner will be revealed. The other finalists are Michigan State linebacker Darqueze Dennard, Florida State defensive back Lamarcus Joyner, Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley and Missouri defensive end Michael Sam.
Donald also was named this week as one of six semifinalists for the Outland Trophy (best interior lineman) and is a candidate for the Bednarik Award, Rotary Lombardi Award and the Lott IMPACT Trophy.
The Outland is really impressive since that generally goes to offensive linemen, and he is the only defensive lineman on the list. The only reason he isn’t getting any Heisman love is because Pitt hasn’t had a season that gets you that attention. And for a defensive player, you have to be on a team that is getting noticed to get that kind of run.
With a player like Donald, the constant churn of defensive coordinators did nothing to slow down his growth as a player.
“He’s one of those guys that brings his hard hat and lunch pail every day and puts time in on the field,” Pitt defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield said. “He’s a real cerebral player. He comes in every day for two or three hours a day and watches film, kind of try to pick guys apart.”
Donald figured to be an integral part of the defense heading into this season, but it would have been difficult to predict this level of productivity through 10 games. He leads Division I-A in tackles for losses with 2.3 per game. He also ranks sixth in sacks (1.0 per game) and eighth in forced fumbles (0.4 per game).
Donald credited the increased performance to a tougher summer workout regimen.
“There were weeks in the summer where the only day I had off was on Sunday,” Donald said. “I was always doing something extra. Speed training, just working out, just trying to get myself better. It’s paying off, I guess.”
The working on his own. Extra time learning the game goes back years.
Donald started playing the following year [age 6], following his brother and his father, Archie Sr., on defense. At home, he used to rip up paper and play football, moving the little pieces around like a chess board.
At Penn Hills High, Donald got to learn from the ultimate mentor. Demond Gibson played at Penn Hills and then at Pitt. Gibson saw a player with a quick first step, an overall aggressiveness and a nose for the ball that all came naturally. Gibson worked with Donald on hand placement, pad level and fighting off blocks.