It’s hard to believe that anyone could overlook Aaron Donald as a top prospect in this year’s draft given the career he had at Pittsburgh. Donald totaled 29.5 sacks, 66 tackles for a loss and 43 hurries during his time with the Panthers. Those stats are even more impressive considering that he was starting for only 3 years, and he was asked to play multiple defensive line positions under three different coaching staffs. Over those three years as a starter Donald, compiled a laundry list of honors, including 1st and 2nd team All-Big East honors, 1st team All-ACC honors, 1st team All-American honors, ACC Defensive Player of the Year and winning the Nagurski, Lombardi, Bednarik and Outland Trophies his senior year. Despite that production and the awards that followed, many thought as Donald entered the Senior Bowl, that his size would prevent him from being a productive NFL player.
Those initial concerns about Donald seemed to be valid at first as he weighed in at just under 6’1″ and at 288 lbs. His lack of height would mean that he likely wouldn’t be able to clog up passing lanes like a number of top defensive tackles and some teams would knock him considerably for that. Even more concerning than the height though was his weight at under 290. Few defensive tackles can play at sub 300 lbs, and while you see some 5 technique defensive ends play in the 280-290 range, they typically are taller. After the weigh-in Donald’s draft stock looked to take a hit, as few teams were probably going to be willing to invest a top 50 pick in an undersized defensive tackle. That’s particularly true in a year with such depth at the position, much of which was on display at the Senior Bowl. Six hours later though Donald began to prove his doubters wrong, as he shined at the first practice of the week.
Donald put on a show at that opening practice, and was a nightmare for the North offensive linemen to try to block. Most notable though was what he did versus Baylor’s Cyril Richardson. Richardson was considered in many circles to be a late 1st-early 2nd round pick, and he outweighed Donald by 55 lbs. He represented the big physical guards that Donald would face on a weekly basis at the next level, and Donald just dominated him. On one rep he knocked Richardson back so fast that Donald pancaked him. Donald opened some eyes with that practice and showed the mentality he was bringing to the Senior Bowl: “Competing. That’s what it’s about. Going out there and competing. Not just competing being all serious – you gotta have fun,” Donald said.
While Donald had a great first day, it was a long week and Donald continued to have to show coaches and scouts his potential. The 2nd day of practice brought some new challenges as it would be in full pads. He would no longer be under the radar, and they would start working on double team drills. This is the area that Donald was supposed to fail at, as there was going to be no way at his size that he could take on a double team from two NFL-quality linemen. It’s a drill designed for the the offensive linemen to win as a guard and tackle double team a defensive tackle and typically drive him back 3-5 yards. If a defensive tackle can hold the line of scrimmage or only lose a yard or two, it’s considered a win for him. The one thing that isn’t supposed to happen is that the defensive tackle pushes the linemen back. Yet that is exactly what happened on one of Donald’s first reps in the drill. Facing off versus Zack Martin (a first round talent) at guard and Brandon Thomas (a top 100 prospect) at tackle, Donald drove Martin back 4 or 5 yards with Thomas in tow desperately trying to get his feet. It was a huge win for Donald and the best that any defensive tackle did in the drill. It wasn’t just that one rep though, as Donald typically held the line of scrimmage or got a little penetration.
Though to many it may have seemed like a simple drill, that double team drill validated much of Donald’s game. It was a major concern of scouts going in and he passed the test with flying colors. When he was asked about how he felt about the double-team drills, Donald’s reaction was simple.
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“It’s been good – I’m used to it. It’s just to show a lot of people that I can hold a double team and that I can anchor it down. It’s been good to just go out there and compete with these guys, with some of the best in college football. It’s been good.”
Despite dealing with questions about his size for much of his career and it’s intensified even more as he gets ready to enter the NFL, Donald doesn’t let it impact his game.
“I never let that get to me and never got mad about it. Me getting mad about that or letting it get to me ain’t going to make me any taller. I just go out there and compete and play the game of football and let my game film and my game talk for me. Thinking about it and letting it get to me ain’t going to help me none.”
What drives Donald though is a clear passion for the game and an unwillingness to ever be content with his level of play or where he stands.
“I don’t just want to be good, I want to be great. That’s my mindset. I want to continue working on my run stop, holding up on double teams, releasing off of blocks. I want to be able to rush the passer better.”
It’s that drive and lack of complacency that makes Donald special and how he can dominate top prospects who out weigh him by 50 lbs or beat double teams. Even after a week of practice where he made play after play, and a Senior Bowl game where he was nearly unblockable, Donald wasn’t content with his performance.
“I feel like it was a solid week. But there’s always room for improvement. It was a good week, but I could have did better.”
Despite the fact that he’s preparing for the draft and his stock is well on the rise, Donald hasn’t forgotten where he’s from,
“Pittsburgh is hard-nosed football, everybody knows that. Just growing up in Pittsburgh, being raised by good parents, having an older brother and an older sister to look up to. Just being in good places where I could meet good coaches. I got the opportunity to work with three different position coaches when I was in college. So that just helped me a lot. And just being around a good team with great, great teammates to push me. All the hard work that I put into the game of football – it just paid off.”
Donald now has a real chance to be a first round pick and carry on the great tradition that Pitt players have in the NFL, and he’s well aware of the legacy of his school.
“It’s an honor. Just that opportunity to have a chance to be in the NFL because there ain’t any promises, ain’t any guarantees. I still gotta get there first. But to know that I’m a part of history at Pitt, that I’m going to be there with some of the greats, next to the Hugh Greens, the Mark Mays, it’s a blessing and an honor to just to become a part of that history – that I’m always going to be that Pitt guy. I’m always going to be a big Pitt fan.”