When Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald was asked what it was like to have the same coaching staff in place for two seasons in a row, a giant smile flashed across his face.
"It's great," he said. "I can't explain it, it's just great."
Donald didn't really have to explain it. His smile said it all. With the continuity of a stable staff comes a more accurate idea of what is expected from the coaching staff when players arrive for training camp in August.
For now the Panthers are involved in offseason conditioning and voluntary workouts. They are three months removed from spring practice but still one month away from fall training camp.
Still, players and coaches are not hesitant to say how valuable this summer period can be. Without coaches present, players are left to their own devices to organize workouts and team activities. Through this process, natural leaders tend to emerge and Donald figures to be one of them on a defense that returns eight of 11 starters from a 2012 unit which ranked 17th in Division I-A in total defense.
Donald is not the loudest player on the defense and is usually shy and reserved when talking to reporters, but his was the first name off of linebacker Todd Thomas' lips when asked who was taking the reins of the defense this summer.
"He's definitely not a talker," Thomas said. "He leads by working hard and doing what he's got to do. He doesn't say much, he just goes out there and works hard, works his butt off."
That doesn't mean that Donald isn't there to help, though. A senior, who was named to the Bednarik Award Watch List for the best defensive player in Division I-A, recalled learning from former Pitt defensive lineman Jabaal Sheard, who garnered similar attention in 2010.
Donald said he not only watched film with Sheard in the long summer months, but also noticed how he handled preseason accolades and attention. Now, he's trying to pass that wisdom along.
"[Younger players] ask me questions and I try to give them feedback," Donald said. "If I see them slacking, I'm going to say something about it. I'm more of a laid-back guy, but if I see that somebody needs help or needs me to say something to them, I'm going to be the guy to do that."
For his part, Donald is trying to ignore the hype this preseason and focus on the game he has played since he was 5. He was named All-Big East Conference in each of the past two seasons and hopes to continue that dominance in Pitt's first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Donald expects to face plenty of double teams by blockers this year -- he's used to it by now -- but has high expectations for a unit that could be asked to buoy an inexperienced offense if it has to.
"I'm excited," he said. "The defense is going to help us win, I feel like. If we don't let the [other] team score points, we've got a chance to win."
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG. First Published July 9, 2013 4:00 AM