Every day, when Aaron Donald comes to the Pitt practice facility on the South Side, he sees a replica of the Outland Trophy that Mark May won in 1980.
By the end of the season, Donald might have one to match it.
Donald is a semifinalist for the award, given annually to the best offensive or defensive interior lineman. It adds to the list of honors and awards that Donald is in the running for this year.
He’s also up for the Bednarik Award (best defensive player), the Rotary Lombardi Award (best defensive lineman or linebacker), the Lott IMPACT Trophy (best defensive player) and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (best defensive 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 award committees haven’t been the only ones noticing Donald, either. He said after a 35-24 victory Oct. 19 against Old Dominion that he has been seeing a more regular diet of double- and triple-teams.
Against Notre Dame, he had only one assisted tackle, but a closer look at the film showed that even with two or three guys trying to block him, he was still able to get in the backfield and disrupt the Irish offense.
“The guys who aren’t looking for it won’t see it, but the coaches will see what he does and I think he’s done a good job the last couple of weeks just being disruptive up front,” Breckterfield said.
The constant attention can get to him at times, but if it frees up his teammates to make the tackles, that’s OK with Donald.
“It gets frustrating because I like to make plays,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we won that [Notre Dame] game. I was truly excited. That was a big-time win for us.”
The biggest question facing Donald down the road is how he projects on an NFL roster. Some experts have him pegged as a first-round pick, but at 6 feet, he’s a bit undersized for a prototypical NFL defensive lineman.
Donald said he tries to model his game after Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman Geno Atkins, a two-time Pro Bowler who is 6-1.
Donald isn’t worried about the NFL now. He has two — maybe three — college games left and, potentially, a boatload of awards to take home.
“Honestly this has passed my expectations,” he said. “I never thought I’d be up for the Outland Trophy or anything like this. I’m truly honored. I can’t say it enough and explain it enough. I’ve just got to keep working. We’ve got more football to play.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.