- Before Aaron Donald made NFL evaluators who knocked him for his size look foolish, he did whatever he wanted in the trenches at Pitt.
When Paul Johnson installed the triple-option offense at Georgia Tech, he probably never expected to use it against a defensive lineman as good as Pitt senior Aaron Donald.
The triple-option is designed to neutralize defenses, maximize efficiency and limit negative offensive plays. It is not designed to account for a generational talent breaking through the line and arriving in the backfield about half a second after the ball has been snapped. That structural flaw did not end well for the Yellow Jackets.
This weekend, the city of Atlanta will once again host Donald for the first time since Nov. 2, 2013, when Donald recorded 11 solo tackles, six tackles for loss, one sack and two forced fumbles in a game that Pitt still lost, 21–10. Donald is now one of many decorated and well-paid stars on a defense trying to bring the Rams the franchise’s second Super Bowl victory.
The second play in the video above is particularly frightening. Georgia Tech tried to run the triple-option inside veer that has made Paul Johnson millions of dollars. It looks like someone missed an assignment, but Donald had simply shrugged off the cut block and immediately closed in on poor Georgia Tech QB Vad Lee, who had a nanosecond to escape before he got tackled. And as you saw in the video above, it just kept happening.
Georgia Tech won the game 21–10 in spite of Donald’s brilliance, averaging over five yards per carry and holding Pitt to minus-5 yards rushing, but its offense only worked in spite of Aaron Donald. Any time Donald was able to influence the play, disaster typically ensued.
Nationally, very few people watched Donald’s last game in Atlanta. Pitt–Georgia Tech was broadcast on ESPNU against No. 7 Miami’s trip to Jameis Winston’s No. 3 Florida State team. Most of Donald’s dominant 2013 season went unnoticed. Pitt would go 7–6 that year with a 3–5 conference record. Pitt’s most notable games were a win over a half-decent Notre Dame team on ABC and a narrow 30–27 upset over Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl (in which BGSU was favored by 5.5).
After compiling 11 sacks, a whopping 28.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles, Donald earned the Bronco Nagurski Award, given to the best defensive player in the country, and was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Despite all this, he was not among the six players invited to that year’s Heisman Trophy ceremony and didn’t finish among the top 10 vote-getters. But if you ever wanted to watch a player ready to start in the NFL man the middle of a college defense, Donald’s Pitt highlights are the place to go:
Donald arrived as a local three-star recruit from Penn Hills High School, just east of Pittsburgh. Three years and two coaching changes later, Donald was close to a finished product. The best Pitt team of Donald’s career came in his freshman year, when Pitt went 8–5 under Dave Wannstedt. The Panthers forced Wannstedt out to hire then Miami (OH) coach Michael Haywood, but 16 days later, Haywood was fired after being charged with felony domestic violence. Then, Pitt hired Tulsa’s Todd Graham from Tulsa, who stayed for one season before leaving for Arizona State. Finally, Pitt hired Paul Chryst, who went 6–7 in 2012 and 7–6 in ’13 (Chryst left for Wisconsin after the following season).
Donald’s technique on the defensive line was unparalleled in college. He had every move in the book mastered by his senior year. He made headlines at the NFL combine with a 4.6 40-yard dash and impressive performances in drills, but his greatest assets were his mastery of space, timing and physical coordination in game action. Before handoffs even happened, Donald was already standing there.
“Aaron truly enjoys the film study and preparation part of the game,” Chryst said in 2013. “He plays every day in practice like it's a game day.”
In the end, there’s only so much one player can do. After Donald and Chryst left, Pitt clawed its way into relevance in its new conference with help from a roster that had been built up to ACC standards by head coach Pat Narduzzi, headline by running back James Conner and ... Nathan Peterman.
Perhaps the lack of team success helped keep Donald off the radar to be a top-five pick in the 2014 draft, while Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack were touted as franchise-changing players. Donald’s success at the college level was discounted by the NFL for one big reason: He wasn’t that big.
“The need for such hesitation [from scouts] 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,” Chris Burke wrote for SI in 2014. “There will be scouts who argue the Donald is nothing more than an undersized three-technique tackle.”
Donald went to the Rams with the No. 13 pick, then tallied nine sacks and made the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Donald is a poster child for the dozens of cases where college production outweigh the measurable aspects of a player’s draft evaluation, but most undersized defensive tackles don’t have the tactical and technical genius to become a Hall of Famer. Even the Rams can’t be given full credit for understanding Donald’s true value: They used the No. 2 overall pick they had obtained from the Robert Griffin III trade to take offensive tackle Greg Robinson, who was traded to the Lions in 2017 after a rocky start to his career. The skeptics have all been silenced now.
Donald won’t be facing much triple-option against the Patriots on Sunday, although Belichick, who called him “pretty much unblockable” this week, will likely throw plenty of two-back sets with James White and Rex Burkhead at the Rams’ loaded defensive front. Like Paul Johnson before him, Belichick faces an unenviable task. Donald’s abilities have helped him thrive in defensive coordinator Wade Phillips’s 3–4 front. In 2018, Donald had 20.5 sacks in the regular season and will probably win his second-straight Defensive Player of the Year Award. So much for being too short.
“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 at the combine in 2014. “Just go out there and try to compete and shock a couple more people.”