Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97). Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

NFL Draft: Q&A with Pittsburgh Defensive Lineman Aaron Donald

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97) holds the lineman of the game trophy after defeating Bowling Green Falcons 30-27 to win the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl. Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

 

With the 2014 NFL Draft only a few months away, we reached out to some of the draft prospects we believe the Green Bay Packers could target in May. Earlier in the week, we heard from Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas and Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon, and today, we have the privilege to hear from one of the most talented defensive players in this year’s draft class, Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald.

Donald has stolen headlines as of late with not only his dominant performance at the Senior Bowl down in Mobile, but also with the eye-popping numbers he posted at the NFL Scouting Combine over the weekend.

At 6-foot-1 and 288 pounds, Donald has been criticized for his size as an interior defensive lineman. However, the former Pitt Panther showed in Indianapolis that he has plenty of strength and athleticism to be an impact player on the line, benching 225 pounds 35 times and running the 40 in 4.68 seconds. Donald also ran the three-cone drill in an impressive 7.11 seconds, giving him top marks at his position in all three drills.

In fact, Donald not only finished second among all defensive linemen in the bench press, but his 4.68 40 time was also the fastest time recorded by a defensive tackle. Donald’s 40 time was even better than over half of this year’s linebacker class.

Donald’s achievements go back much further than the combine and Senior Bowl though. As a senior, the Pittsburgh native was one of the few players in college football history to earn the Outland, Lombardi, Bednarik, and Nagurski awards in the same season. His 11 sacks, 28.5 tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles in 2013 reflect just how dominant Donald was playing on the interior of Pitt’s defensive line.

Donald is a first-team All-American and first-team All-ACC selection who is rapidly rising up draft boards as May approaches. Donald continues to impress and is definitely a player that could be selected in the first round come draft day.

Because Donald is an outstanding defensive player and the Packers will be looking for impact players to add to their defense in the draft, I reached out to him and had the privilege to speak with him over the phone earlier in the week.

Q. First, tell us a little bit about your background. Where did you grow, and what led you to play at the University of Pittsburgh?

AD: I grew up in Pittsburgh with my mom, dad, and older brother and sister. I eventually moved to Penn Hills to play high school football there. I had a good high school career, and I was highly recruited Penn Hills. I got offers from Akron, Toledo, and Pitt. I chose Pitt not because it was the biggest school, but because it was my dream school. I committed to them my junior year. I always grew up saying I wanted to play for Pitt or Penn State and I got to the opportunity to play for Pitt.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97). Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Q. What led you to play on the defensive line?

AD: I have always been a defensive lineman. I’ve played defense ever since I was little. Growing up I tried to play linebacker, but I started gaining that weight and getting a little too big for linebacker so I put my hand in the ground. I grew up playing football ever since I was five or six years old and was always a defensive lineman. I always felt that it was my God given ability to play on the defensive line.

Q. For those that may have not seen you play in college, describe for us your style of play. What are your strengths as a defensive lineman?

AD: I’m a high-motor guy. I’m not the tallest defensive lineman, but I’m explosive, quick, and fast off the snap. I’m also strong. Strong enough to hold the double team against the run. I’m quick enough to be that inside pass rusher and put pressure up the middle. I’m also able to stop the run. I feel I’m a well-rounded football player. I would say I’m a pretty good defensive lineman.

Q. What makes you unique at the position? 

AD: I go 100 miles per hour every single play. I love to compete. That is one of my favorite things about football. I play not just because I love the game, but because I love to go out there and compete and match my skills against different players or go out and compete against some of the top talent. I love having the opportunity to play football.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97) is blocked by Syracuse Orange guard Nick Robinson (68). Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97) is blocked by Syracuse Orange guard Nick Robinson (68). Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Q. What do you believe is the most underrated part of your game?

AD: I feel a lot of people underrate me. They say I don’t know how to stop the run or I don’t know how to hold double teams. I feel I’ve grown into a more complete football player in my four years in college and I showed that a lot more my senior year.

Q. What part of your game would you like to improve the most before the draft? 

AD: I want to improve everything. I want to improve my pass rush skills, and I want to improve my ability to stop the run. You can always better yourself and continue to grow as a football player. To compete on that stage and consider yourself great, you can’t just say that you’re great. You have to work hard and continue to improve to get there. I’m constantly working on my craft as a football player, from stopping the run to rushing the passer.

Q. Are there any NFL players you try to model your game after or any you watched growing up that inspired you to play football? 

AD: I always watched Warren Sapp growing up. I also love the way the Suh plays from Detroit. He’s a physical mean player. In my junior season, I started watching a lot of Geno Atkins and studying him. I just like the way he plays the game. He’s an undersized defensive tackle, but he’s explosive. He’s quick and he makes a ton of plays. He’s fun to watch.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97) makes a sack on Syracuse Orange quarterback Ryan Nassib (12). Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Q. I’ve heard quite a few people compare you to Geno Atkins. As a player, is this something you take as a compliment or would you rather not be compared to other players?

AD: It’s an honor to be compared to a guy like Geno Atkins because he’s a great football player. He’s one of the best defensive lineman in the NFL. It’s an honor for people to feel like I got the ability or potential to be like him. It’s definitely an honor.

Q. You were one of the most dominant defensive linemen in college football last year. You won just about every award there is at your position and also really impressed people at the Senior Bowl and NFL Combine, but you still seem like an underrated guy at your position going into the draft. Why do you think that is?

AD: I’m not sure, honestly. I feel like I’m more underrated when it comes to TV coverage. I don’t get talked a lot about as far as the draft or top players at the position, but I feel like at the end of the day scouts know who I am. Teams know who I am. They watched the film and that’s what it’s about. It’s about what the teams like. I feel like they watch film and they know what they want.

As far as everything on TV talking about the draft and my name not being involved in it very often, that doesn’t get to me at all. It’s about what these teams want. There’s 32 teams that are picking, so the moment I get picked by one of those teams the other stuff doesn’t matter.

Q. Anybody who watches your film would see your game is impressive, so do you think it’s maybe the casual fan or writers/media that just haven’t taken the time to watch you on tape that may be overlooking you? 

AD: I’m not sure. After the Senior Bowl, I was hearing a lot more stuff about being in the first round as far as mock drafts go, but to me none of that means anything until your name is called and you’re on that team. Anything can happen in the NFL, and definitely in the NFL draft. There aren’t any promises and there aren’t any guarantees.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97) takes the field on senior day against the Miami Hurricanes. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97) takes the field on senior day against the Miami Hurricanes. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Q. As a player, do you pay any attention to the draft coverage or do you just try to ignore it and do your thing?

AD: I don’t get into it too much, but I get to see it a lot because people send stuff to my social media. I’m more of a guy that just likes to focus on what he’s got to do. I get to go out there and get the teams and scouts to recognize me to get that job.

Q. In these coming months, is there anything left for you to prove to people or scouts? 

AD: I feel like I proved everything already. I proved I could play the run and rush the passer. I got to meet a lot of scouts and talk to a lot of teams at the Senior Bowl. They got to know me a little bit and learn a little bit about my football knowledge that I gained in my time in college. It’s always good to continue to show what you can do when you have the football pads on and your athletic ability at the combine. I’m just excited to go out there and do that.

Q. Where do you see your fit being in the NFL. Are you a guy that can play anywhere on the line, or do you feel you have one specific role that suits you best?

AD: I feel I can play anywhere on the defensive line. I had experience from  three different D-Line coaches. I had experience in a 4-3 as a three-technique defensive tackle. I also played nose tackle. I played in a three-man front my sophomore year and started as a five-technique end in that system. I got experience at every position on the line, but if I had to pick one spot that suits me best, it would probably be the three-tech position.

Q. Do you feel your experience at various positions shows you’re versatility and will help you when it comes to the draft?

AD: I feel it helps me a lot just the fact it shows that I’m able to make plays at any position on the defensive line, and that I got the experience and am comfortable doing it.

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97. Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Q. You’re a guy I’ve heard quite a few fans mention as a player they’d like the Packers to draft in May. The Packers do need help on the defensive line and need to add another pass rusher, so how would you feel about playing in Green Bay?

AD: I would love to play for Green Bay. I would love to play for any team that would want me, so if their coaches feel like they could use me and they trust me as a player and I feel like I could grow with them and they could help me to grow and learn from the veterans then I would love to play for Green Bay. Given Lombardi and their quarterback history and great history in general, it would be an honor to play for them.

Q. If they drafted you, what would you bring to the team?

AD: As a rookie, I could come in right away and play. I feel like I could learn the playbook fast and I could go out there and earn the trust from the coaches and teammates. I could be that inside pass rusher and a lot of teams could use that. I feel like I could rush the passer from the inside or from the outside. I feel like I could stop the run. I can help to make plays and that’s what it is about. It’s about being productive and doing your part to help your team.

Q. The Packers do play a 3-4 defense, and you talked about this a little bit earlier, but where would you see yourself fitting in that type of scheme?

AD: I could play nose tackle and I could play five-tech. Wherever they feel like they could use me at and where I could be the most explosive at and help the most that’s where I’d like to pay. I can play all over the defensive line. I could even play as a three-tech as an inside rusher in their nickel packages.

Q. What goals you will set for yourself in your first year in the NFL?

AD: First thing is to get to an NFL team and go to camp and learn the playbook. Learn from the coaches and the veterans there and try to earn their trust. I would like to work hard and try to play right away. I want to contribute to the team in my first year and continue to grow as a football player and hopefully be the Defensive Rookie of the Year if I can get out there and compete. I set high goals for myself, but I also want to go out there and play my part to help my team win games and get to the playoffs and hopefully play in the Super Bowl.

Q. Tell us a little bit more about yourself. Who have been the most influential people in your life and have helped you get to this point? 

AD: My mom and dad. They have always been there and I always had my parents right behind me. I always had my older brother and sister to look up to. My dad got me into working out when I was twelve years old to get out that lazy streak I had growing up. He instilled discipline in me. He had me wake up at six o’clock in the morning when I was fourteen and fifteen years old to train and workout. While everybody else was sleeping, I was at work.

He showed me what it takes to put that work in and become a great football player. I’ve seen a difference in my play each year as I went through high school and transferred to college. I got better each year, so I know what it takes to get better and I know what it takes to try and be great. I thank my parents and I thank my brother and sister for everything they’ve done for me. They played a huge part and they’re still with me today.

Q. When you’re away from football, what do you like to do in your free time? Any favorite hobbies?

AD: I love to play ping pong. I’m a good ping pong player, so that’s one of my favorite hobbies. I like relaxing with my family, my girlfriend, and my daughter. I got a daughter who’s ten months old. Just relaxing with my family, and when I get a chance to get to that ping pong table, play a little ping pong. I get pretty competitive with it. Anything I do I want to win, but I usually win more than I lose so I consider myself a pretty good ping pong player.

Q. Anything else you’d like us to know before we let you go?

AD: I’m a competitor. I love the game of football and I just want to play a huge role in helping a team be successful.

 

Career college stats

2013 – 59 tackles, 28.5 TFL, 11 sacks, 16 QB hurries, 4 FF, 3 PBUs, and a blocked kick

2012 – 64 tackles, 18.5 TFL, 5.5 sacks, 11 QB hurries, FF, and 2 PBUs

2011 – 47 tackles, 16 TFL, 11 sacks, 11 QB hurries, FF, and 4 PBUs

2010 – 11 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 sacks, 5 QB hurries, and 2 PBUs

 

Film and Highlights on Aaron Donald

Aaron Donald brief 2013 highlights

 

Aaron Donald complete 2013 highlights

 

Aaron Donald against Georgia Tech: 11 tackles, 6 TFL, a sack, and 2 forced fumbles

 

Aaron Donald against North Carolina: 5 tackles, 3 TFL, 5 QB hurries, sack, and a forced fumble

 

Watch more film on Aaron Donald over at draftbreakdown.com.

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