Draft prospect Aaron Donald proving there's nothing small about his game
Two words to sum up the scouting report on 2014 draft prospect Aaron Donald: "Yea, but ..."
As in, "Yea, he dominated in college, but is he big enough for the NFL?" Or "Yea, the guy is incredibly athletic for a defensive lineman, but where are we going to play him?"
The need for such hesitation stems entirely from Donald's size. At 285 pounds and just shy of 6-foot-1, he's something of a physical misfit when it comes to playing up front in the NFL. There will be scouts who argue the Donald is nothing more than an undersized three-technique tackle, others who want to scrap him from the plans if their teams runs a 3-4 because of how off the map his measurements would be in that system.
Donald's former positional coach at Pittsburgh, Inoke Breckterfield, has a message for those naysayers: Stop worrying.
"Junior year, as 3-4 nose tackle, he had 11 sacks," said Breckterfield, who was a third-team All-American defensive end for Oregon State. "He comes back his senior year and knocks it out of the park. He's played in multiple systems. I think he can play anywhere on the defensive line.
"3-4 teams really looking at him to see if he can be that 3-4 end or 3-4 nose. Wherever you put him at, he'll work his tail off. Wherever they decide to take him, he'll mold himself into that guy."
Despite falling outside the typical DT profile, Donald is being viewed as a top-20 prospect -- in Audibles' two most recent mock drafts, he landed No. 11 and No. 16 overall, respectively. Had he been less productive at Pitt or were there red flags other than on the scale, it would be far easier to discount Donald as a potential NFL star.
The evidence to the contrary, though, is almost overwhelming.
Donald finished his senior year with 11 sacks and an outrageous 28 tackles for loss. He was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, the Bednarik Award winner as the nation's top defender and the Outland Trophy winner as college football's best interior lineman. Plus he landed on no fewer than 10 All-America teams. Donald was the Meryl Streep of the 2013 awards season -- time and again hearing his name called.
He backed up the heaping praise with a brilliant performance at the combine. While the viewing public oohed and aahed over Jadeveon Clowney's 40 time, Donald, carrying in excess of 30 pounds more than Clowney, clocked in with a sub-4.7 mark of his own and tossed up 35 bench-press reps.
Short (no pun intended) of growing an extra inch or two before May, there is little else Donald can do to convince an NFL team he's worthy of a high pick.
"[My height] is what it is," Donald said at the combine. "Thinking about it isn't going to get me no taller. All I can [do] is go play the game of football the way I play it: hard-nosed, out there trying to make plays."
Pretty much all Donald did during his Pittsburgh career was "make plays."
"I was [a coach at] UCLA when Datone Jones was there," Breckterfield said. "But I haven't seen that type of combo of speed and power [like Donald has]. I haven't been around anything like that in my coaching career. They only come around once in a blue moon."
The NFL has been hesitant to adjust its norms on a position-by-position basis. Nose tackles still are expected to weigh in at 330 pounds; corners with height in the 6-2 range are chased like water in the desert; quarterbacks, no matter the successes of Drew Brees or Russell Wilson, have a clear prototype that emphasizes height.
Donald has become one of the rare prospects capable of rocking the boat. His stunning speed -- "You watch him move, when he's chasing down quarterbacks, he closes that gap real quick," Breckterfield said -- and quickness off the snap may turn him into a new-breed of tackle at the next level.
"I think he's done a great job of proving to those that are in the know that he's a great football player," said Breckterfield, who during an interview with SI repeatedly emphasized Donald's work ethic. "That's all they have left to knock is his height."
How much does that matter if he continues to play as he did at Pittsburgh?
"All I can do is do my part and keep trying to open up eyes with what I did on the football field, what I did in my career," Donald said. "Just go out there and try to compete and shock a couple more people."
Standout college career? Check. Impressive combine effort? Check. The respect of his former coaches and teammates? Check and check. Aaron Donald stacks up as one of the 2014 draft's best available players, possibly a dominant pro for years to come.
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