SOUTH BEND – Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald does not appear to be too imposing at 6-foot, 285 pounds.
But Notre Dame’s offensive linemen know better than to judge Donald by his size as the No. 24 Irish (7-2) prepare to play at Pittsburgh (4-4) on Saturday night.
In my junior year, he was kind of a backup guy that came in and out, fifth-year senior left guard Chris Watt said of Donald’s play in the Irish’s 15-12 win at Heinz Field in 2011. He was actually one of the best players I’d played, I thought, when he was a backup. He didn’t play as much and that was nice for us.
Notre Dame will not have the luxury of seeing Donald only in spot appearances this year as the senior has grown into one of the premier defensive players in college football.
Donald only had one tackle against the Irish in 2011, but he finished his sophomore season with 47 tackles, 16 for loss, and 11 sacks to earn second-team All-Big East honors.
Donald was just as productive last season as he had 64 tackles, 18 1/2 for loss and 5 1/2 as he earned first-team All-Big East honors. He had seven tackles with one for loss in Notre Dame’s 29-26 triple-overtime win last season.
Last year, we had 101 plays, I think, on offense, and he was going hard pretty much every snap, Watt said. He pretty much doesn’t come off the field.
Donald is the most disruptive lineman the Irish will see this season. He leads the nation in tackles for loss with 19 1/2 , and he is fourth in sacks with nine.
Donald put on his best performance in the Panthers’ 21-10 loss to Georgia Tech last week, making 11 tackles – all solo – with six for loss. He also forced two fumbles and had a sack.
Aaron Donald has been a one-man wrecking crew, especially last week against Georgia Tech, against the option, he was a force, coach Brian Kelly said. He will be somebody that we will have to game plan and find a way to slow down.
Irish linemen said one of the things that make Donald so dangerous is how smart he is at mixing in power and finesse moves.
He’s a slippery guy, he gets off blocks, center Nick Martin said. He’s a really smart player. You can tell he watches a lot of film. He knows what you’re going to do. If something works on him, a block, he learns from it and the next time he’ll be ready for it.
He also has power. You have to be balanced and be ready if he is coming at you. You have to be on your toes and be ready every snap.
Notre Dame will try to slow Donald down with Watt, who is dealing with a PCL injury, two first-time starters in Nick Martin and right guard Steve Elmer – who will be making his third career start – as well as mixing in double teams from left tackle Zack Martin and right tackle Ronnie Stanley, another first-year starter.
Even with all the attention the Irish will give Donald, it will be nearly impossible to stop the nation’s active leader in sacks (27 1/2 ).
The good thing about the way that he plays is that he’s able to affect the play whether it’s going to him or away from him, Pitt coach Paul Chryst said.
I thought that’s what stood out to me with his production the last couple weeks. He’s a special player, I love the way he’s approaching it and we need him to continue to be even more special.