PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — It is not always a bad thing when a player goes unnoticed. Aaron Donald must take that to heart, because, even as he continues to draw national attention, his focus away from that attention continues to sharpen.
Donald (6’0″, 285 lbs.), a 2012 All-Big East honoree at defensive tackle, has been selected to preseason watch lists for the Bednarik Award and the relatively newer Ronnie Lott IMPACT Trophy. Both awards, given immediately following the FBS regular season, go to the top defensive player in the country.
In addition, Donald has been deemed a Preseason All-American by Lindy’s Sports and Phil Steele, and a first team Preseason All-ACC selection by several football magazines.
“I’m excited about it, but I’ve still got to go out there and play football,” the Pitt senior shrugged.
That’s a mantra he repeated as he addressed the media on the South Side Monday morning. Donald, nonplussed by the program’s ongoing struggles, made himself a presence throughout Pitt’s final Big East campaign. The backbone of a burgeoning defensive unit, he led the conference–and ranked in the top ten nationally–with 18.5 tackles for loss, and tied for fifth in the Big East with 5.5 sacks.
All the while Donald took in stride the difficulty of drawing double-teams, counter-adjusting to opposing coaches, enduring more blows from offensive linemen, and, therefore, potential blows to his stat line as his junior season unfolded. But you’ll never hear him complain about it, not even as increasingly difficult assignments await in the ACC.
“I don’t know [about that]. I just know we’re going to face a lot of good competition, and I’m just getting ready for that competition,” Donald said. “If I get a double-team, I’ll just try to take advantage of a single block. I’m just going out there, trying to make plays, and help my team win.”
You see, in good times and bad, Pitt’s defense, to a man, preached “assignment football” last season, and Donald has made himself a student of “assignment football.” He credits Paul Chryst and his staff for making him a star pupil up front.
“Every time I get coached by a coach, I’m listening, absorbing, and learning. You’ve got to learn in order to play, then just go out there and have fun with it,” he said.
It’s been as much fun for his teammates to watch him grow as it has been for fans to watch the Panthers’ defense grow collectively. In 2012 they finished 17th nationally in total defense after slipping to 35th the year before, and 23rd nationally in scoring defense, which was a 15-spot improvement from Donald’s sophomore year.
“I’m excited. This defense is going to help us win,” he said.
Linebacker Todd Thomas gives a great deal of credit to the Penn Hills product for his ability to lead by example.
“He’s really setting a tone as a senior this year,” Thomas said. “He’s definitely not a talker. He just leads by working hard, and doing what he’s got to do. He works his butt off.”
Donald missed the annual Blue-Gold Game. Beyond that, it seems he hasn’t missed a beat this entire off-season, and he corroborates Thomas’ claim that the work ethic of this Pitt team, not just his own, has improved, and that team chemistry has also improved as Chryst enters his second year as head coach.
Whether or not that will lead to immediate success in their new surroundings is an uncertainty. That doesn’t bother Donald, nor does uncertainty about the team’s offense that might put more pressure on the defense, or even the prospect of facing a proven opponent right away when the Florida State Seminoles invade Heinz Field Sept. 2 to usher in Pitt’s ACC era.
“We don’t pay attention to it,” Donald said of the anticipation surrounding the team’s prime-time Labor Day lid-lifter. “We just have to go out there, and play like we’re supposed to play: hard.”
It’s going to be hard for Donald to stand out in the ACC, despite his obvious maturity. But Pitt’s defense can still be outstanding as long as he stays upright.
“We’re just going to go out there and play football,” he said once more, undaunted. “That’s all we can do.”
The semifinalists for the Bednarik Award will be announced Oct. 29, three days after Pitt’s nationally televised visit to the Naval Academy. Last year’s award went to Notre Dame standout and eventual San Diego Chargers draftee Manti Te’o, who also won the Lott Trophy.
Previous ACC winners of the Bednarik Award are North Carolina product Julius Peppers (2001) and E.J. Henderson of Maryland (2002).
So far, the lone ACC recipient of the Lott Trophy has been Luke Kuechly of Boston College, who won it in 2011.
(Follow me on Twitter @mpopchock.)