Statistics aside, it's not easy to describe what Pitt senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald does.
"I think 'disruptive' is a good word for it," defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield said Tuesday.
And the statistics back that up. Through 10 games this season, the Penn Hills native has piled up 22.5 tackles for loss and 10 sacks. He leads the country in TFL's per game and is currently the active career leader in sacks with 28.5 in his career, and on Tuesday, Donald was named one of six semifinalists for the Outland Trophy.
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The Outland is presented annually to the nation's top interior lineman on either side of the ball, but the other five finalists - Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, Baylor's Cyril Richardson, Florida State's Bryan Stork and Stanford's David Yankey - are all offensive linemen. No defensive lineman has won the award since Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh in 2009, and only five of the last 20 Outland Trophy winners have come from the defensive line.
But Donald is unique. His stats this season already rival Suh's 2009 production, despite the fact that Donald has played 10 games and Suh had 14 on his resume by that season's end. The Pitt senior might have reached an apex a few weeks ago when the Panthers played at Georgia Tech. Donald had an astonishing 11 tackles, six tackles for loss, one sack and two forced fumbles in that game, and he was named the Bronko Nagurski National Defensive Player of the Week and the Bednarik Award National Defensive Player of the Week for that performance.
That game was just the latest in a career of standout showings, and above all else, Donald has been exactly what Breckterfield said:
"That's what I try to do every play," Donald said Tuesday night after the Outland semifinalists were announced.
Still, Donald doesn't fit the bill of a playmaking lineman, since he stands just around six feet tall and weighs less than 300 pounds. But game after game, Donald is a presence in the trenches, keying Pitt's defensive attack and drawing the attention of every offensive coordinator and line coach from New Mexico to Syracuse.
"In the run game and pass game, he does a good job on his first step of getting penetration, and he has a really good first step that is very hard to block; I think he's done a really good job with that," Breckterfield said. "He's a student of the game; it's been a pleasure. He's one of those guys that brings his hard hat and lunch pail every day, and he puts his time in on the film. He's a really cerebral player. He comes in every day, two, three hours a day, and we'll sit down and watch film.
"With him, we just try to find ways for him to be disruptive in certain formations or situations or just study the film together and try to see areas where he can be disruptive. He does a good job with that."
Donald's dedication to the game was evident this summer, when he spent most of his time working six days a week, doing everything he could to improve himself for his senior year. And the results have been evident: three multi-sack games and six games with at least two tackles for loss. That effort culminated in Atlanta three weeks ago, but it was followed by a rather quiet game from Donald in Pitt's 28-21 win over Notre Dame.
Against the Irish, Donald had one tackle assist and one quarterback. No tackles for loss. No sacks. No forced fumbles. But Pitt coaches and players agreed that his impact on the game was considerable.
"I think he's been very disruptive," Breckterfield said. "The stats don't show it, but he commands double-teams in the passing game and forces slides sometimes, so I think his disruption along the front has been…guys who aren't looking for it won't see it, but coaches will see what he does, and I think he has done a good job the last couple weeks being disruptive up front."
"Yeah, you get frustrated; I like to make plays," Donald said when asked if the Notre Dame game drew any frustration from him. "But at the end of the day, we won that game and I was truly excited. It was a big-time win for us."
Now Donald is looking forward to winning at least one more game to secure a spot in his fourth bowl game before his Pitt career ends. He has steadily climbed draft boards this season, and the undersized defensive tackle from Penn Hills is now looking like a lock to get a shot at playing in the NFL.
In the meantime, Donald will wait to see if his name is called for one of the four awards he is up for. In addition to the Outland Trophy, he has been named a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award, the Rotary Lombardi Award and the Lott IMPACT Trophy.
Pitt has only had one player win the Outland Trophy. Offensive lineman Mark May took the award in 1980. Mark Stepnoski - another offensive lineman - was also an Outland finalist in 1988.
Finalists for the 2013 Outland Trophy will be announced on Monday, Nov. 25, and the winner will be named during the Home Depot College Football Awards telecast from the Dance Hall on the Disney Boardwalk in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on Thursday, Dec. 12, on ESPN.
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