Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald had a monster game against Georgia Tech a few weeks ago, a Herculean effort that ranks as one of the best in school history.
His stat line read 11 tackles (all solo), six tackles for loss, two forced fumbles and a sack. The six TFLs are the most by an FBS player this season.
Best game ever, right?
“I’m not sure about that,” the soft-spoken Donald says. “I could have played better. I could have made one or two plays to help my team with the game.”
Wait. He could have played better than one of the best games in Pitt history?
How is that even possible?
“We lost the game.”
That encapsulates Donald. He is not enamored with his performance, nor is he enamored with the accolades that have come his way this year. Donald has been one of the most productive interior players in the entire nation, becoming a semifinalist for the Bednarik and Lombardi Awards and earning Midseason All-America honors from a variety of outlets -- including ESPN.com.
He leads the country in tackles for loss per game (2.2) and is tied for seventh nationally in sacks per game (1.0). Of the top 10 players in sacks, Donald is the only defensive tackle.
But the missed plays stay with him, more than the plays he actually has made. This is where the laid-back Donald gets his drive. Off the field, he never really says much. But he is constantly studying and analyzing in the film room, looking for weaknesses he can exploit. On the field, he is relentlessly pursuing his own idea of perfection with a ferocity that even his teammates stop and admire from the sideline.
“He’s like a machine out there,” says Pitt receiver Ed Tinker, Donald’s cousin and closest friend on the team. “He is just being hard on himself to get better. Sometimes you have to be really hard on yourself to get better. I respect him for that.”
Hard to believe, then, that Donald only had three scholarship offers in high school.
The quest to become a bona fide football player began years before, growing up the youngest of three children. His older brother, Archie, had already started playing football and Aaron showed an interest at age 5. His mom, Anita Goggins, bought him new spikes and took him to his first day of practice.
“He looked at me and said, ‘I don’t want to play football,” Goggins recalls. “I said, ‘You don’t want to play? We just bought you these spikes.’ So he says to me, ‘You can wipe them off and take them back to the store. I don’t want to play.'"
But that did not last long. Donald started playing the following year, following his brother and his father, Archie Sr., on defense. At home, he used to rip up paper and play football, moving the little pieces around like a chess board.
At Penn Hills High, Donald got to learn from the ultimate mentor. Demond Gibson played at Penn Hills and then at Pitt. Gibson saw a player with a quick first step, an overall aggressiveness and a nose for the ball that all came naturally. Gibson worked with Donald on hand placement, pad level and fighting off blocks.
Donald soaked it all in and began dominating, but college recruiters were not nearly as enamored with him. He got plenty of looks. But only three schools offered scholarships -- Akron, Toledo and hometown Pitt. Donald grew up a huge Pitt fan, so the offer was “a dream come true,” he says.
He committed after his junior year.
Given how productive Donald has been, it seems ludicrous he only had three scholarship offers. Ultimately, his size -- 6-foot, 270 pounds -- scared away teams that initially showed interest.
“I got a lot of questions asking, ‘Did this kid have the ability to play on this level?’” Gibson recalled in a recent phone interview. “It was a slap in the face he didn’t have every D-I school in the country knocking his door down. I’m sure a lot of these other schools are kicking themselves for not having this kid on their team right now.”
Donald is up to 285 pounds now, still undersized for an interior player. But what he lacks in size he makes up for in football knowledge and overall tenacity. Gibson notes that Donald goes full speed on every single play, and that is a big reason why he is so effective.
Pitt defensive line coach Inoke Breckterfield says Donald excels at film study, and understanding how to take advantage of the favorable matchups he gets. Plus, Pitt has been more willing to turn Donald loose this year, asking the linebackers to help him out.
“He understands our scheme. He knows when to take shots,” Breckterfield says. “We’ll study the film, he’ll see certain things where the offense will tip its hand and he knows we can take a shot there. It’s paid dividends for us with the plays he’s been making.”
None bigger than the Georgia Tech game. Well, that is if you ask anybody but Donald.
“He's one of the best players we've played against,” Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson said. “He's very disruptive. He’s got quickness. He's compact. He's not a real tall guy but he's very quick and he's explosive. He's just hard to block.”
He has been for three seasons now. But this year has been something special -- even if Donald would never tell you that.