More than a month ago, Aaron Donald and Cyril Richardson were finalists for the Outland Trophy, given annually to college football’s best lineman.
Fast-forward to Senior Bowl practice this week in Mobile, Ala., and Donald, Pitt’s star defensive tackle, and Richardson, an All-American offensive lineman from Baylor, found themselves lined up against each other.
They went head-to-head for most of the day, but the highlight that made the rounds on the Internet showed the 288-pound Donald knocking the 343-pound Richardson on his back and getting past him.
By most accounts, that was pretty much par for the course for Donald this week.
Coming off a senior season that saw him become the most decorated player in Pitt history, Donald added one more trophy to his case this week as he was named the most outstanding overall player in the week of Senior Bowl practices.
Donald will play in the Senior Bowl game at 4 p.m. today, televised on NFL Network.
“It’s just fun, like I said, to go out there and compete with some of the best in college football, finish off my true college days on the football field,” Donald said in a phone interview Friday. “It’s been fun to just go out there, put those pads on again and play the game of football.”
This week was about more than just having a good time, though. Donald’s dominance against college football’s best offensive linemen could do wonders for his draft stock and even possibly land him in the first round of May’s NFL draft.
“I think that somebody’s going to get a good player in him,” said NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt, who was the Dallas Cowboys’ vice president of player personnel from 1960-88.
“He made himself some money already this week down at the Senior Bowl.”
Donald said he spent most of the week going against Richardson, as well as Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin, who Donald faced when Pitt beat the Irish, 28-21, Nov. 9. Richardson and Martin could end up being first-round picks.
“You could say you’re not surprised, but you don’t want to come off like you knew it was going to happen,” Pitt coach Paul Chryst said. “You’ve got to go do it, and that’s what I love about him. He’s going to rise up to the occasions.”
Brandt said that the biggest knock on the 6-foot Donald — his height — might not be that much of a concern because of his unusually long wingspan.
“He compensates for it because his arms are probably the equivalent of a 6-3, 6-4 person,” Brandt said.
“He’s a guy that only knows one way to play, and that’s 150 percent.”
The other big question for Donald will be finding a good fit in the draft. It will almost certainly have to be with a team that plays a 4-3 defense, like Pitt, where Donald can fit in as a three-technique defensive tackle with the ability to make plays in the backfield.
“I feel like that’s where I’m most productive, in the 4-3 at the three-technique,” Donald said.
Donald said he met with representatives of “pretty much all” NFL teams this week. While he said he doesn’t care where he ends up going on draft day, he knows that his strong play in Mobile could have an impact.
“I know a lot of teams probably wanted to get to know me off the field and see how I was and get the opportunity to talk to me,” Donald said. “At the same time, I know there was talk about just little things they needed to see that I could do and I hope I answered their questions this week.”
Sam Werner: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @SWernerPG.