The book on: Aaron Donald

Aaron Donald

Aaron Donald, Pitt's indomitable defensive tackle, ranks fourth in FBS history with 66 tackles for losses — including a national-best 28.5 during an award-winning senior season.

Aaron Donald

Defensive Tackle
University of Pittsburgh Panthers
#99
6:00.6-285
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Penn Hills High School

OVERVIEW

If you put a tape measure to Donald, you walk away thinking that he is a squat fullback and not one of the most feared backfield disruptors in the history of college football. When one measures the Panther's production on the football field, they recognize that he rules in the "Land of Giants."

Donald ranks second among active players and fourth in the history of the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision with sixty-six tackles-for-loss, registering sixty-one solo stops while assisting on 10 others. Among active players, only Khalil Mack of Buffalo (tied for the NCAA record with 75 tfls) had been more active in the backfield. The only two former collegians ahead of Donald on that record list are Jason Babin of Western Michigan (75.0 tfls; 2000-03) and George Selvie of South Florida (69.0 tfls; 2006-09).

In each of his last three seasons, Donald has delivered at least 16 tackles behind the line of scrimmage. He increased that total each season, recording 16 stops as a sophomore, followed by 18.5 as a junior. Last season, he not only led the nation with 28.5 stops-for-loss, but that figure tied for seventh on the NCAA's season-record chart.

Pittsburgh left the Big East Conference to join the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2013, but Donald's total of sixty-six tackles behind the line of scrimmage would have topped the league record of 65.0 by Darnell Dockett of Florida State (2000-03). His 28.5 stops-for-loss in 2013 is the second-best season total by an ACC player, surpassed by only Keith Adams of Clemson (33.0 in 1999). He is also only the seventh player in ACC annals to reach the 25-TFL level during a campaign.

Still, the "football gods" will always look at their tape measure, rather than measure a player's ability. The astute decision makers did change that impression after seeing Donald simply manhandle every offensive lineman that got in his path during the week-long practices leading up to the 2014 Senior Bowl. Yes, there were many analysts who believe Donald is too short to be a first-round pick but during that week in Mobile, he showed that size doesn't always equal production.

During the NFL draft process, size becomes all encompassing. Scouts and analysts alike use measurements as the foundation for the vast majority of player critiques. Offensive linemen are graded based on arm length, quarterbacks are judged on hand size, and linemen are shuffled up and down draft boards based almost entirely on their height/ weight combination.

Such has been the case with Donald (6-1, 288) whom many believe is too small to be a first-round selection in this year's draft. The familiar refrain during Senior Bowl practices this week has been: "If Donald were two inches taller, he'd be a Top-10 pick." It's an interesting criticism for a player who was absolutely dominant on the practice field.

During the game's first practice session, Donald began his week by steamrolling Baylor guard Cyril Richardson, widely considered one of the top interior offensive linemen in this year's draft. Donald's bull rush so overpowered Richardson that he ended up flat on his back. "I like to stay true with the bull rush," Donald said. "But I like to change it up a lot. I like to use my quickness, a finesse move, or I can use my power with a bull rush to hold the double team. I like to switch it up a lot on them and keep them guessing."

Donald did just that all week, routinely beating his blocker in both one-on-one and team drills. In fact, no one was more impressive in practice than Donald, who demonstrated a lethal combination of power and quickness that may have erased some of the doubts about his size. "I don't put anything on my shoulders. It isn't a chip. I just play the game of football. That's all I can do," said Donald. "Me complaining about it or worrying about what people are saying, that isn't going to make me any taller."

The criticism of Donald's size is reminiscent of what folks were saying about Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins (6-1, 303) when he entered the draft out of Georgia in 2010. Atkins fell all the way to the fourth round, 120th overall. In four seasons since, Atkins has been named a two-time All-Pro and has been to the Pro Bowl twice. Last off-season, he signed a five-year, $55 million contract extension, which is the second most lucrative contract for a defensive tackle in NFL history.

Like Atkins, Donald says he's a pure 3-technique defender, one who can generate one-gap penetration and get after the pass rusher. "I can play any position but I feel like I'm an inside guy at 3-tech," he said. For 4-3 NFL teams, interior players who can collapse the pocket in the face of the quarterback are invaluable. Based on Donald's performance vs. some of the top competition in the country, it appears he'll have no problem doing just that at the next level.

"I like to change it up a lot," he said. "I like to use my quickness, a finesse move, or I can use my power with a bull rush to hold the double team. I like to switch it up a lot on them and keep them guessing. I usually go with what the linemen give me. I don't think too much before the play. I just go. If he gives me the inside, I'm going to take the inside. If he gives me the opportunity to do a quick swim or a wipe, I'll do that. I change it up a lot."

Coming into the Senior Bowl, Donald arrived after leading the nation with 28.5 tackles for loss as a senior in 2013, earning him the Nagurski and Outland Trophies as the nation's best defensive lineman. Yet questions about his size still had many NFL teams concerned that he won't be able to hold his own vs. the mauling offensive linemen at the next level.

The way he performed in front of NFL scouts in Mobile has almost assuredly propelled him into the first round, although that's not something with which he's concerned.

"I don't know. I just go out there and compete and play the game of football. Hopefully I did something," Donald said. "You never know. God willing everything will work out for the best but there aren't any guarantees or promises, so you never know." Yet, based on his dominance in Mobile, the team that puts aside Donald's lack of ideal size will end up with a lightning quick, powerful player who has repeatedly shown the ability to disrupt plays in the backfield. Ultimately, isn't that what's most important?

Before Donald started terrorizing quarterbacks in a University of Pittsburgh uniform, he was regarded as one of the most dominating defensive linemen in Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League Class AAAA ranks while starring at Penn Hills High School. He was selected first team All-State Class AAAA by the Pennsylvania Sports Writers Association each of his final two seasons.

The Pennsylvania Football News All-Class AAAA, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette WPIAL Class AAAA Player of the Year, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Fabulous 22" and Pittsburgh Tribune-Review "Terrific 25" choice compiled 63 tackles, including 15 for loss and 11 sacks as a senior. He also started at offensive guard and was a three-year starter on both sides of the ball.

The Indians advanced to the WPIAL Class AAAA playoffs in each of Donald's three years as a starter. He was selected to play in the Big 33 Football Classic and was rated one of the country's top 25 defensive tackles by Scout.com.

Donald enrolled at hometown Pittsburgh over other scholarship offers from Toledo, Akron and Rutgers, playing in all 13 games as a reserve defensive tackle for the Panthers in 2010. He recorded 11 tackles with two sacks, three stops-for-loss and five quarterback pressures, coming up with a crucial 9-yard sack on a goal-line stand to prevent Kentucky from rallying during a 27-10 Pittsburgh win in the BBVA Compass Bowl.

National recognition would follow as soon as Donald was inserted into the lineup at nose guard during his sophomore season, moving to strong-side defensive end for his final five contests. The All-Big East Conference first-team and All-American second-team choice ranked seventh in the nation with 11 sacks, despite encountering constant double-team coverage. He added 11 pressures with 16 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and 47 total hits.

Donald again shifted positions as a junior, taking over strong-side tackle duties, where he started all 12 games. No matter where he played, he found ways of impacting the pocket, leading the Big East while finishing twelfth nationally with 18.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage. He led the Panthers with 5.5 sacks and 11 QB pressures, as he also recorded a career-high 64 tackles.

Donald received unanimous All-American honors as a senior, becoming the first Panther to accomplish that feat since Hugh Green in 1980. He also became the most decorated player in school history as he also captured the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Chuck Bednarik Award, Outland Trophy and Rotary Lombardi Award. The ACC Player of the Year led the nation with a school record 28.5 tackles-for-loss, finishing 13th in the FBS with a team-best 11 sacks. He also paced Pitt with 16 pressures and totaled 59 tackles.

CAREER NOTES

Donald started 30-of-51 games at Pittsburgh — 25 at strong-side defensive tackle and five at strong-side defensive end…Recorded 181 tackles (115 solos) with 29.5 sacks for minus 200 yards, 66.0 stops for losses totaling 315 yards, 43 quarterback pressures, 11 pass deflections and six forced fumbles.

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