Former Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald returned to school for his senior season in 2013. In retrospect, the decision couldn’t have been smarter.
On the heels of solid sophomore and junior seasons, Donald tested the NFL Draft waters last year. Not projected as a high pick, he returned to Pitt to play another season and the benefit was a remarkable one.
Instead of being a likely mid-round pick, the lineman has parlayed his big year into what should be a big payday. Donald has shot up mock draft boards after his monster year and almost surely will be first-round selection. Players often rush their way out of college allured by receiving a paycheck in the pros, but Donald’s patience will land him considerably more money.
Donald dominated the college football landscape this past season, sweeping every major award for which he was considered, save the Heisman. After one of the greatest years in recent memory for a defensive player, Donald took home the Bronko Nagurski Award (top defensive player), the Lombardi Award (top lineman or linebacker), Outland Trophy (top interior lineman), and the Bednarik Award (also given to the top defensive player). When you throw in his ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors and Unanimous First-Team All-American status, Donald truly had a season for the ages.
That season, by the way, included some gaudy stats. In 2013, Donald had 59 tackles and 11 sacks — something virtually unheard of for an interior lineman. Also consider that nearly half (28.5) of his tackles were for losses and it’s easy to see that he spent a lot of time in opposing backfields blowing up plays. It can also be argued that he propelled Pitt to the postseason with a single play. Needing a sixth win to clinch a bowl game for the Panthers, Donald picked up nine big tackles and blocked an extra point in Pitt’s one-point victory against Syracuse late in the year. Losing the following week in their finale to Miami meant that the victory was necessary to get the team to the postseason. The victory against the Orange allowed Pitt to reach (and subsequently, win) a bowl game against Bowling Green to give the team their first winning season since 2010.
The competition against which he played also proved Donald is ready for the big time. In his historic season, Donald faced the National Champion Florida State Seminoles and nine other bowl teams (Miami, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse, Navy, and Bowling Green). There were few cupcakes on the Panthers’ schedule and Donald is clearly battle-tested.
Donald also brings value with his versatility. He has experience playing tackle, but previously was a defensive end. Donald not only played at end, but had a significant amount of success there, racking up 11 sacks back in 2011. He will almost surely be a tackle at the next level, but has the capability to fill in as an end as well.
Both ESPN and CBS Sports project Donald as one of the top 15 players in the Draft. Each site, along with Mike Mayock of NFL.com, says that he is also the top defensive tackle available. All in all, Donald is attracting a lot of attention.
Even with all of the attention don’t expect to see him at the draft. Despite the near guarantee of being a first-round pick, he has chosen to skip out on attending. While the decision was a rare one, it’s not unprecedented as several players have passed up the bright lights of New York – often in fear of not being taken quite as high as they hoped and being forced into an extended stay in the infamous green room.
Donald’s absence won’t matter in the end. Whether he’s there or not, the standout will be one of the one of the top defensive players off the board.