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May 28, 2013
The countdown to the start of the 2013 season is under way, as Pitt is 97 days away from its Labor Day opener against Florida State at Heinz Field. Panther-Lair.com is counting down the days until the biggest season opener in recent memory.
Today's number is 97, so we're looking at No. 97 on the current roster.
While the Pitt football team has toiled through back-to-back six-win seasons, there have still been a few bright spots over the last two years. And no spot has been brighter than the defensive line position occupied by Aaron Donald.
Donald was viewed as under-sized when he was a dominant lineman at Penn Hills, but the Pitt coaches knew what he was capable of. After all, when they were recruiting Donald, the coaches had a very similar player doing very similar things in Mick Williams, and Donald even looked at Williams as a model for what he could be in college.
As such, it didn't take long for Donald to accept Pitt's scholarship offer, and he committed in April 2009. The early commitment might have slowed his recruitment - Donald only had four scholarship offers: Pitt, Rutgers, Toledo, and Akron - but his senior season at Penn Hills probably had other coaching staffs salivating.
Donald was a beast in the 2009 season, racking up 63 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 11 sacks. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette thought he was the best player in the area - quite literally, as he was named the WPIAL Class AAAA Player of the Year - and both local newspapers put him on their all-star teams (the Post-Gazette's "Fabulous 22" and the Tribune-Review's "Terrific 25").
Donald was as good as a lineman can be in high school, and the Pitt coaches were more than excited to get him in campus in 2010. From the first practice in August that year, it was clear that Donald would see the field early and often, and he appeared in all 13 games as a true freshman.
2011 was his real breakout, though. Working in the more aggressive 3-4 defensive system Pitt used that year, Donald was all over the place as a sophomore, as he lined up at all three defensive line spots in that scheme and dominated from each of those positions. His most dominant game was in Pitt's loss to Utah; the defense and special teams nearly won on that game on its own, and Donald led the charge with nine tackles and three sacks.
He also had multiple-sack games against Connecticut and Louisville and he finished the season with 47 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, and 11 sacks. He earned All-Big East second-team recognition, ranked No. 7 nationally in sacks and was No. 2 in the Big East in sacks and tackles for loss.
As good as Donald was in 2011, he was even better last season. Playing the three-technique defensive tackle position in the 4-3 once again, Donald was a beast and arguably the most dominant defensive player in the Big East. He won conference Defensive Player of the Week honors after recording five tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack against South Florida, and put up a whopping 13 total tackles at Connecticut.
Donald recorded 18.5 tackles for loss last year - his TFL-per-game average ranked No. 1 in the Big East and No. 12 nationally - along with 64 total tackles and 5.5 sacks.
He enters his senior season with 18.5 career sacks, placing him just 2.5 sacks outside Pitt's all-time top-ten list. If he gets another five sacks this season, he'll move into a tie with Bryan Knight for No. 7; if he can get eight sacks, he'll move into a tie with Zeke Gadson and Keith Hamilton for No. 4.
More importantly, Donald will continue to be the centerpiece of Pitt's defense, a unit that ranked in the top 25 nationally in scoring defense and total defense last season. Donald is disruptive and relentless, and if the last two years are any indication, he should be in line for a dominant senior year.
Countdown: 98 - A transition year
Countdown: 99 - Hugh Green
Countdown: 100 - A look at Pitt in 1913