PITTSBURGH (AP) – The numbers and the face of the man behind them seem out of whack.
Penn Hills graduate Aaron Donald doesn’t look like the most disruptive defensive player in the country, one whose relentlessness is creating a minor groundswell of Heisman Trophy support. Generously listed at 6-feet and probably more than a few cheeseburgers short of his published weight of 285 pounds, the Pittsburgh senior speaks in a soft, thoughtful voice that doesn’t exactly scream hulking menace.
To be fair, that’s the way Donald appears off the field. On it, he says, he becomes “a different person.”
One who might be having the most dominant season of any player at any position in the country.
Heading into the final home game of his collegiate career on Friday against Miami, Donald leads the nation in tackles for loss (26), is 10th in sacks (10) and 11th in forced fumbles (four). He even threw in a blocked extra point that ended up being the difference in a 17-16 victory over Syracuse last weekend that assured Pitt (6-5, 3-4 ACC) of a sixth straight bowl berth.
When asked how a short guy manages to get his hand on an extra point, the typically serious Donald breaks character and says with a smile, “I’m 6-4!”
Only, it seems, when he’s in his cleats.
“He’s not the biggest guy,” Pitt senior offensive lineman Ryan Schlieper said. “That’s why he’s not getting all the hype. But he plays like the biggest guy out there, that’s all that matters.”
Stuck in the middle of a middling defense on a middling team in a middling conference, Donald has been the one constant on a team that fluctuates from promising to problematic with maddening consistency. Press coach Paul Chryst on what has been Donald’s most impressive feat in a season full of them and Chryst struggles to come up with an answer.
Is it the clinic he put on in a loss to Georgia Tech earlier this month, when he recorded six tackles for loss, forced two fumbles and picked up a sack? Or his three tackles for loss and two sacks against Virginia Tech in mid-October? Or how about the four quarters he put together against the Orange last week, when he recorded nine tackles on a day Syracuse coach Scott Shafer said his team did its best to run to the opposite side of the field?
“Last year he was a good player,” Shafer said. “This year he’s a great player. I’ve seen him over the years and he’s really grown as a kid that plays hard all the time.”
Including practice. Especially practice. Schlieper spent most of the last four years trying to find a way to get the better of Donald during their countless midweek matchups. Schlieper lost far more than he won. He called having to face Donald regularly “probably one of the worst things you could imagine.”
Schlieper is kidding, but only a little.