Donald makes huge impact on Pitt football defense
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Generally a guy who is 270 pounds doesn't hear people say he is too small, but that's exactly what happened to Pitt sophomore defensive tackle Aaron Donald countless times in his junior and senior year of high school when he was hoping to be recruited by major colleges.
"They were all saying I was a bit undersized, that is pretty much what they told me," Donald said, "I was surprised to hear that, but it is what it is."
Donald, 6 feet, 270 pounds, did have a couple of offers from Mid-American Conference schools and was set to pick one, but Greg Gattuso, who was then Pitt's defensive line coach, saw film and convinced Dave Wannstedt to offer him a scholarship.
Gattuso often said that Donald would become "another Mick Williams" -- an undersized, yet dominant defensive tackle for the Panthers and the 2009 Big East co-defensive player of the year -- and as a freshman he was one of the most impressive players in camp.
He played in all 13 games and showed signs of becoming a star. But coming into this season he was still behind three seniors along the defensive line.
But he has been too good to keep off the field and out of the lineup. He has started each of the past two games. He is by far the leader on the team tackles for losses (12.5), sacks (9) and quarterback hurries (10). He also has 33 tackles.
Pitt coach Todd Graham said that Donald has put together a great season almost entirely on his own ability.
"He has gotten so much better technique-wise. He was very, very raw when we got here," Graham said. "He hadn't played much, but what makes him special is his explosive power. He has as much power as any guy I've ever been around no matter what size. He is extremely powerful, strong and explosive and he is also talented and slippery and hard to block.
"And those are things we've tried to get him to understand -- he has that explosive power. In the weight room he is very impressive, he is quick explosive, it is a gift, but the key is technique. And if he would decide that his technique is his No. 1 asset and master his craft, the sky is the limit."
Graham said that Donald, despite his youth, can play any position on the defensive line and is excellent against the pass and the run. As he continues to gain experience, he will become nearly unstoppable.
Donald, however, is soft-spoken and a man of few words and he is choosing to take an extremely humble approach to things. He said has a long way to go before he can be mentioned with the likes of a player as good as Williams was.
He said that he needs to get better against the run and that is something he has worked hard to do.
But he said he doesn't need to try to do too much because he is on a star-studded unit that includes productive veteran players such as Chas Alecxih, Brandon Lindsey and Myles Caragein. There is no way opposing defenses can focus in on one of them.
"I just want to work hard and get stronger and faster and then work harder," Donald said. "The whole defensive line are good players, so [teams can't key on him] and we help each other. I'm still trying to work on getting to the run a little bit, better but it is [reading the backfield] better, that's all."
Donald has had two sacks in two of the past three games but said that sacks aren't his only job and he wants to be known as a complete player.
Of course, his position coach, Paul Randolph, believes he might be a lot closer to becoming a complete player.
Randolph, like Graham, said Donald still needs to work on his technique and fundamentals but, along with his natural ability, his work ethic and his intensity almost ensure that he is going to be successful against any offensive line.
"Aaron has done about everything I've asked him to do," Randolph said. "We wanted him to work on his fundamentals and as you can see now with his production. His fundamentals have gotten better and it shows up on game day. His work ethic and his mindset and his natural ability -- he just makes plays.
"When I look for guys to recruit in the future, I'm looking for guys like Aaron Donald with that first step, that explosiveness and, on top of that, the violence in him is what I really like," Randolph said.
"He enjoys playing the game and, to me, he is kind of a throwback. He is an old-school guy, but his first step, his attitude and temperament -- those things are what make him such an explosive player."
First Published November 18, 2011 12:00 am