Pitt Preseason Camp: Amid uncertainty, No. 97 a sure thing
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There are plenty of unanswered questions about Pitt's defensive line.
Where will Tyrone Ezell end up? Is Khaynin Mosley-Smith completely recovered from injury? Has Shayne Hale been able to build upon his impressive spring?
For all the questions, though, the unit also has the Panthers' most ironclad certainty.
Barring injury, Aaron Donald will start in the middle of that defensive line when Pitt opens the season 6 p.m. Sept. 1 against Youngstown State at Heinz Field.
Donald, a junior, is the anchor of a unit brimming with potential but short on depth and experience. That means he has to be ready to absorb questions in the meeting room just as well as he does blockers on the line.
"He goes a million miles an hour on every snap," defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield said. "You can see it. He's straining, he's working, but it's definitely a plus to have him with our guys and he's a guy you can point to on tape to show, especially younger guys at his position."
Those younger guys include freshmen Terrell Jackson and Darryl Render, who may be called upon to provide depth. But Donald also has made an impact on Ezell, a redshirt junior, and Mosley-Smith, a sophomore.
"[I'm] just trying to have them watch what I do on the field," Donald said. "They see me going 100 miles an hour, they're going to go out, try and do the same thing, so that's what I try to do.
"They feed off me, I feed off them.
"I feel like, they see me slacking, they're going to slack."
Ezell, who has shifted around the line in training camp, was lined up next to Donald in the middle of the defensive line at practice Friday. Ezell has seen limited playing time the past two years but is one of the players who has the skill set to make a major impact this season.
He recognized that playing next to Donald has its advantages.
"I definitely love it," Ezell said. "To have somebody of his ability next to me and everything, just help me to take my game to another level because I know I've got him next to me.
"Everybody's gunning for him because he already established himself and what he can do out there in a game. I just feel like, learn from him, watch what he can do and just play off him."
Production from other linemen, like Ezell, could be key this season because, as Donald admitted, he expects to see a lot of double teams. He played in all 13 games as a freshman in 2010 but totaled just 11 tackles.
Last year, he broke out with 11 sacks and 16 tackles for loss, both team highs. The Big East coaches voted him to the all-conference second team.
It's safe to assume that opponents will know where No. 97 is when they line up this fall.
"It depends if they respect me or not," Donald said, with a grin.
If, against all odds, opponents don't respect Donald for what he did last year, he's ready to make his presence felt again this year.
Donald said he added 10 pounds in the offseason, bringing his weight to 285 pounds, and upped his team-high bench press to 450 pounds.
"I wanted to get to 470 by the end of this year," he said. "I want to be eventually a 500[-pound] bench presser. I like the bench press. I feel like the stronger my bench is, the stronger I feel.
"[The extra weight] is going to help me a lot. It's going to be a lot harder to move me on the double-team. Plus, the hip work I've been working on, staying low. I'm going to be a load."
The hip work is specifically designed to improve Donald's already explosive first step. While he was known mostly as a pass-rusher last year, Donald said he wants to step up his run-stopping ability and become a better "all-around defensive lineman."
Right now, no one appreciates the challenge Big East linemen will face this year more than Pitt center Ryan Turnley, whose assignment is to block Donald every day in training camp.
"He's a unique player to play against," Turnley said. "He's extremely explosive off the football and, I mean, it's something that is rare."
Last year, Donald showed what he is capable of with that rare ability.
This season, he is ready to build on it.
• Game: Pitt vs. Youngstown State, Heinz Field.
• When: 6 p.m. Sept. 1.
First Published August 19, 2012 7:30 am