Just five months ago, Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald was a curious snub from the preseason All-Atlantic Coast Conference team.
After spending the season wreaking havoc in opposing backfields, Donald showed the voters that they might have missed on that decision.
Donald, a senior from Penn Hills, was named Wednesday the ACC defensive player of the year.
"For people to think I can be a defensive player of the year in the ACC, I just can't explain it," Donald said. "It's truly an honor, I'm truly excited about it.
"It's a blessing, man, that's all I can say."
As is typical for the low-key Donald, he said he didn't let the fact that he was left off the preseason team get to him.
"I didn't really have a reaction," he said. "All the awards, it's good to be talked about with awards and things like that, but at the end of the day you've still got to go out there and play the game to earn something like that."
There's no doubt that Donald earned this award, Pitt's first individual player of the year honor since defensive end Jabaal Sheard took home Big East defensive player of the year in 2010.
Donald led all Division I-A players with 26.5 tackles for a loss this season, along with 10 sacks. He was named to the first-team all-ACC team Monday and figures to be a leading candidate for most All-America squads as well.
"I love the fact that he's earning it with what he's doing on the field," Pitt coach Paul Chryst said earlier this year.
Against Georgia Tech, Donald had 11 tackles (all solo), including six tackles for a loss, one sack and two forced fumbles.
Three weeks later against Syracuse, in a win that clinched bowl eligibility for Pitt, he had nine tackles (eight solo), 3.5 tackles for a loss, two quarterback hurries and a blocked extra point.
Chryst said one of Donald's best qualities is that his best plays often come in moments when Pitt needs someone to step up the most.
"I think that's the mark of a great one," Chryst said after the Syracuse game. "Your eyes go to him, he sees it and he gives you the nod, and more often than not he comes through."
Donald admitted that as the season progressed, he started facing more consistent double teams. That was the one area he said he wanted to improve the most as he practices for Pitt's bowl game and, after that, the NFL draft.
"[I faced] a lot of double teams, a lot of slide protection," he said. "I always just say it's a part of the game and just got to be able to get used to things like that, learn how to beat that and become a better ballplayer."
For as much respect as opposing offenses showed Donald this year, voters were equally impressed.
Donald garnered 44 of the 65 votes from the Atlantic Coast Sports Media Association. Wake Forest nose guard Nikita Whitlock followed Donald with 10, and Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner placed third with eight. Boston College linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis received two, and Florida State safety Terrence Brooks got one.
Donald even received four votes to finish third for overall player of the year. That award went to Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston (47 votes), who also won offensive player of the year.
Donald remains a finalist for four major individual defensive awards: Bednarik Award (best defensive player), the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player), the Outland Trophy (best offensive or defensive lineman) and the Rotary Lombardi Award (best defensive lineman or linebacker).
He will travel across the country next week to the various awards ceremonies, ending with the ESPN "College Football Awards" show Dec. 12 in Orlando, Fla.
Donald also has gotten some buzz as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate over the past few weeks.
He almost certainly won't win the award, or even earn a trip to New York as a finalist, but could garner some votes. ESPN's recent straw poll of 16 experts had Donald finishing ninth, with one third-place and two fifth-place votes.
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG First Published December 4, 2013 1:16 PM