In the end, Aaron Donald became the Rams' second selection of the round, garnering praise from nearly every corner of NFL media. It was no direct path.
An undersized DT product out of Penn Hills High School in Pittsburgh, Donald ended up staying at home despite interest from numerous schools up north. Ranked as the 22nd DT by Scouts, Inc., and 37th by Rivals, Donald was by no means a top recruit. Nevertheless, he took over starting duties in his sophomore season and never looked back. For his 2013 season, Donald was awarded the Lombardi Award (for best lineman or linebacker), the Bronko Nagurski Trophy (best defensive player), the Chuck Bednarik Award (also best defensive player) and the Outland Trophy (best offensive or defensive lineman).
The accolades told the tale: Aaron Donald was a damned good college football player.
To find out just how good he was and what he meant to Pitt football, I linked up with Anson Whaley who manages Cardiac Hill, the SB Nation community for Pitt Panther fans.
Simple, but open-ended question. Aaron Donald is the highest-picked Panther since Larry Fitzgerald as the 3rd overall pick in 2004 and the highest defensive lineman out of Pitt since Sean Gilbert who also went 3rd overall in 1994...to the Rams. What makes Donald so special?
Donald's biggest attribute is that he's just relentless. He often would face double teams and be held in check at times by opposing offensive lines, but you rarely see him take plays off. Because of that, eventually, he'll find a way to break through and make a play. Most fans know about his 11 sacks, which is pretty unheard of for an interior lineman. But he also had 28 1/2 tackles for losses, often blowing up plays in the backfield. He just brings all kind of pressure and even while being held and double-teamed often this year, was just so relentless that he still made an enormous impact.
Can Donald help propel the program? Does having first half of the first round pick allow the staff to recruit either on the defensive line or in general? How big is this for the Paul Chryst era?
Whenever you get a player that accomplished what he did, it's a huge recruiting tool. After he swept all of the major awards that he was up for (save the Heisman), that is clearly that's stuff that will be used a big focal point when it comes to recruiting. Essentially, what Donald showed potential recruits is that if you come to Pitt, even if you're undersized or not highly regarded as he was coming out of high school, you can still do great things if you put in the work.
It also adds to Pitt's continued presence in the pros and that just makes Paul Chryst's job easier. Guys like Larry Fitzgerald, LeSean McCoy, Darrelle Revis, and even punter Andy Lee, are all Pitt guys that are at or near the top of their respective positions in the league. The Panthers didn't have a player drafted in the last two seasons, but with Donald going in the first round, and Tom Savage and Devin Street getting selected on Saturday, it just makes the program an easier sell to recruits. Having coaches on the staff with pro experience is always a valuable tool, but when you can prove that they know how to effectively get their players to the NFL, it's extremely attractive. Regardless of whether a kid can truly play in the pros, most want to go to a program that has a track record of producing NFL players. Donald's selection is another example of Pitt's relevance when it comes to producing not only pros, but potential stars.
What skills would you tell Rams fans to be excited about the Donald exhibits consistently? He's coming into a very proficient defensive line; what should Rams fans expect from him in year one?
Most of all, hard work. The stories are a mile long about how Donald came to Pitt as an under-recruited player and worked his way to top. Paul Chryst often spoke of him not only being the best player on the team, but the one that worked the hardest. The hard work off the field translates into not taking plays off and playing every snap as if it's the most important. Despite what he actually produces on the field next year, the Rams will be getting a player that puts in the time to get better.
Donald's size has created some doubters about how good he'll be in the NFL. While that's obviously a concern, one thing that I can't shake is just how dominant he was on a line that produced so little. Donald was playing around guys that just weren't viable threats to sack the quarterback. It was the reason he faced so many double teams and I've got to think that playing in St. Louis, that won't be an issue anymore. The concerns about his size are certainly valid. But they also have to be balanced with the fact that he presumably won't be facing as many double teams.
Different programs have different stereotypes surrounding them, different traits that teams come to expect from prospects that come out of a given school. Is there anything NFL teams and fans should expect from Panthers moving forward? As I write this (at the end of day two of the 2014 NFL Draft), QB Tom Savage and WR Devin Street have yet to be drafted, but I expect them to go on day three. Is there a characterization of what Pitt is sending to the professional level that applies across the roster?
I really hate to use this phrase again, but the overwhelming message is simply hard work. I've already mentioned the type of work Donald has put in, but Devin Street's situation was nearly identical as well. Street was a guy that came to Pitt as a two-star recruit with no other significant offers. Not viewed as a big-time player, he leaves as the school's all-time leader in career receptions. He had a chance to break the yardage mark as well, but suffered some injuries this season. Tom Savage bounced around before coming to Pitt, but worked hard as well. He transferred from Arizona and sat out all of 2012, putting in time to take the job last year. A bigger theme for him is probably one of resiliency since he had to repeatedly bounce back after taking numerous sacks behind a pretty porous offensive line. Overall, though, Pitt has just been able to take some guys that weren't expected to do a lot and turn them into stars.
Long term look. Who should NFL fans be on the lookout for? What members of the incoming/last class have Pitt fans excited? How do they fit into that model (if one exists) from the last question?
The biggest NFL prospect on Pitt's current roster is likely sophomore wide receiver Tyler Boyd. Boyd broke all kinds of records last year, including some freshman records set by Larry Fitzgerald. If this were the NBA where he could turn pro after one season, there's little doubt that he would have. He's just incredibly athletic and makes plays all over the field. It's early, but he has a real chance to be a first- or second-round pick in a couple of seasons if he stays on track. He was a more highly-touted kid than Street or Donald, so the same theme doesn't really apply to him. However, he's also known as a hard-working kid that practices well and if he continues to work and get better, the sky's the limit for him.
Thanks to Anson for hooking us up!