CBSSports.com Defensive Player of the Year: Pitt's Aaron Donald
What Aaron Donald lacks in height, he makes up with quickness, instinct and perseverance. The Pitt DT wreaked havoc in opposing backfields in 2013 and is the best defender in the land.
Aaron Donald won as many major college football Awards last week as he garnered scholarship offers back in 2010.
Once considered an undersized defensive tackle with mid-major potential, Donald has turned offers from Pittsburgh, Akron, Rutgers and Toledo into Nagurski, Lombardi, Outland and Bednarik.
The Pitt defensive tackle basically slept in a suit last week as college football deemed him the nation's best defensive player and best linemen on either side of the ball at various award shows.
CBSSports.com will add to Donald's hefty collection, branding Pitt's loudest Panther with its Defensive Player of the Year award.
"Blessing," Donald said Monday. "Hard work pays off."
This season, college football gave us a superb one-on-one corner (Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard), a versatile safety turned corner (FSU's Lamarcus Joyner), a fiery playmaker for a national power (Alabama's C.J. Mosley) and an SEC sack luncher (Missouri's Michael Sam).
None of those Nagurski finalists outperformed Donald, whose dominance overshadowed his team's inferior record on the field. Pitt finished 6-6 while the other finalists combined to win 47 games.
To understand why, start with tackles for loss.
The 6-foot, 285-pound Donald recorded 26.5 backfield stops. That's 2.2 per game, easily a national high. For context, the closest to Donald's total among interior defensive linemen was Wake Forest's Nikita Whitlock with 18.
The last player from a power conference to produce a higher number was Michigan linebacker Shawn Crable in 2007. Houston linebacker Sammy Brown had 30 tackles for loss in 2011 for 130 yards, the same yards total for Donald in 3.5 fewer tackles.
Donald wins with anticipation at the line of scrimmage. He worked all season with defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield to break down offenses, offensive lineman tendencies, offensive schemes. They would hole up for hours, either in defensive line meetings or one-on-one, to assess what Donald would face on Saturdays.
Donald looks for a guard or center to tip a run or pass play and takes calculated risks based on what he notices. He detects slide protections and identifies the one-on-one matchups he can exploit. He knows if he doesn't get the right positioning, offenses will double-team him. So he creates his own matchups with his instincts, which he says were right about 85 or 90 percent of the time this season.
Once he gets positioning, quick hands and feet do the rest.
"If you take that chance, you better win it," said Donald of trying to sniff out a run or pass.
Take the Georgia Tech game, when Donald made several plays in the backfield worthy of this nifty highlight tape. Preparing for the triple option, Donald said he learned a lot about how to play cut blocks. The guard would either chop or pull him, he said. Once he hit the field, neither tactic really mattered. He finished with 11 tackles, a sack and two forced fumbles.
"Learn weaknesses," Donald said about his opponents.
Donald's game planning led to a late-season explosion when Pitt needed him most. Thirteen of Donald's tackles for loss came in November, when Pitt navigated the toughest part of the schedule and won two games to become bowl eligible.
Donald thrived in Paul Chryst's 4-3 system -- well, he would probably thrive in any system, given his 11 sacks under Todd Graham's 3-4 scheme in 2011 -- but he added a career-high four forced fumbles along with 10 sacks, 54 tackles and two pass deflections.
One perceived knock in Donald's game at the pro and college level -- his height -- is actually a strength in Donald's mind.
"That's leverage from those big guys," Donald said.
A self-described lazy kid growing up in Penn Hills, Pa., Donald learned how to lift weights from his dad, Archie, who traveled with Donald's mom, Anita, to Donald's awards appearances last week. They started in Charlotte last Monday for the Nagurski (best defensive player), then headed to Houston for the Lombardi (top lineman or linebacker) and Orlando for the Outland (interior defensive/offensive lineman) and Bednarik (best defensive player).
Archie's birthday was the day of the Nagurski ceremony.
"It was a great birthday gift," he said. "There were some tears last week."
But the two didn't celebrate with a lavish dinner. Donald went to bed shortly after the reception. Time to go to work. Even when he plays ping-pong in the Pitt football facility, which is every day before practice, he sweats until he's won more than he's lost.
"Once you get into a work stage in life, you can do a lot of things that go beyond football -- you learn life lessons," Donald said.
Donald will probably teach a few lessons in the Little Caesars Bowl on Dec. 26, then it's off to the draft, where NFL execs will decide if Donald's height will be a problem. Donald doesn't mind the probing. He doesn't have a draft round in mind. A draft grade won't determine how many backfields he pillages.
"I just want to make it," Donald said.
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