Aaron Donald emerges for Pitt

Going into the season, it seemed logical to bank on Pitt defensive end Brandon Lindsey to lead the team in sacks.

After all, Lindsey had 10 sacks last season to rank second in the Big East.

But instead, a promising sophomore has emerged as the sack king.

Meet defensive end Aaron Donald, who leads the Big East with nine sacks. That ties him for seventh nationally in sacks per game (0.9). Seven of those sacks have come in the past four games. His productivity has gotten him two straight starts, with a third expected Friday night at West Virginia in the Backyard Brawl.

"This year definitely has been more of a surprise, but I’m excited it’s happening," Donald said. "I'm just happy to be able to do what I’m doing to help the team."

Donald was locked in a battle with Justin Hargrove during preseason to start at defensive end, after Pitt decided to move Lindsey to the hybrid end/linebacker role in the new 3-4 defensive scheme. Hargrove started the first game of the season, but Pitt decided to move Lindsey back to end and get true freshman Ejuan Price onto the field at linebacker.

But Donald has been impossible to keep off the field. Price has struggled, too, so it made most sense to put Lindsey back at linebacker and start Donald at end so the Panthers could get two of their most productive linemen onto the field at the same time. Lindsey has 5.5 sacks this season and eight tackles for loss. Donald also leads the team with 12.5 tackles for loss.

"The power Aaron Donald has is off the chart," Pitt coach Todd Graham says. "Being such a young player, he's dominant. Every play, he gets better."

Defensive tackle Chas Alecxih, who has 4.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss, has watched Donald grow throughout the season.

"He’s obviously a very talented player, very blessed physically, extremely explosive," Alecxih said. "But a lot of it for him, he’s taken the coaching and he’s made the most of it. He’s been very awesome and fun to watch. It’s going to be scary next year when he’s got everything down."

You can bet the attacking Pitt defensive front is going to be a huge key in this game. Pitt will need to get pressure on West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith. Syracuse has been one of the few teams that was able to effectively rattle him. The Pitt defensive front has more experience, depth and talent than Syracuse, so that could be an advantage for the Panthers.

Donald obviously will be a huge key. The soft-spoken young man out of Pittsburgh says he worked this offseason to get stronger, and more explosive -- specifically on his get-off from the line. He also has learned from Lindsey, Alecxih and all the players on the defensive line, and credits his emergence to all the work he has put in to making himself better.

"I just feel like I'm maturing faster than what I thought," Donald said. "But it's hard work. Hard work pays off."