Outland Trophy history: Defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh, 2013 recipient

This is the eighth in a series of stories on Outland Trophy winners from 2006 to 2020.  From 1946 to 2005, the first 60 Outland Trophy winners were profiled in the book 60 Years of the Outland Trophy by Gene Duffey. In celebration of the Outland Trophy’s 75th Anniversary we are catching up with the last 15 recipients.

Aaron Donald became the fourth player to receive the Outland Trophy and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy in the same season. The much-decorated defensive tackle was selected by the St. Louis Rams with the 13th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. The perennial All-Pro has played his entire career with the Rams, now relocated back in Los Angeles.

 By Gene Duffey, Author

Everyone east of Tom Hanks knows there’s no crying in baseball. So there definitely can’t be any crying in football.

You’re certainly not allowed to shed a tear if you play on the line of scrimmage, where the tougher you are, the better you are.

But it happened on Oct. 15, 2011, to a defensive tackle who would go on to claim the Outland Trophy. Pitt’s Aaron Donald, the 2013 Outland Trophy recipient, admitted he cried that day.

Donald surprised himself that afternoon in his sophomore season. It was the seventh game of the year, a home matchup with Utah. Donald had played regularly as a backup his freshman year and become a starter as a sophomore.

He played well through the first six games. Nothing exceptional. He was on his way to becoming a good player. Not a great one.

Donald changed his path that day against the Utes. He made nine tackles, 3 ½ of them sacks. He was no longer just another player. Aaron Donald was on his way to greatness.

“After that game I went to my dorm room and just busted out crying,” allowed Donald. “I was so happy with myself. Against a good team. I was just overwhelmed.”

Donald didn’t even need to watch the highlights on television. He remembered every one of them. “I kept playing the game over and over in my mind,” he said. “I was making the same plays I was in high school. From that point on I was playing that way the rest of the season. I knew what I needed to do. It just boosted my confidence.”

Paul Chryst, the Pitt head coach for Donald’s junior and senior seasons in 2012-13, wasn’t surprised when he heard the story.  Chryst later became the Wisconsin head coach.

“I could see that,” he said of Donald crying in happiness. “That was his moment. The validation.”

Aaron Donald

Getting to know his coaches at Pitt was never easy for Donald, or anyone else in his class. The Panthers went through four head coaches in four years.

Donald came out of nearby Penn Hills High School to play for coach Dave Wannstedt at Pitt. The Panthers finished 8-5 in 2010, Donald’s freshman year. But it was a disappointing record coming off a 10-3 season.

The Panthers had beaten New Hampshire and Florida International, the type of teams Pitt never used to schedule. They were blown out at home by rival West Virginia. Wannstedt was fired (forced to resign for those of you scoring at home) at the end of the regular season. Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett coached Pitt to a bowl victory over Kentucky.

“The people who brought me here wound up leaving,” said Donald, who was recruited by defensive line coach Greg Gattuso. “At the end of the day, I guess it’s a business. It caught me off guard a lot.”

Pitt hired Mike Haywood from Miami of Ohio to replace Wannstedt — then fired him 17 days later after Haywood was arrested on a domestic violence charge.

“I met him one time,” said Donald. “He was going to run a strict program. I didn’t get a feel for him. The last time I saw him he was on the news. It was surprising.”

Next, Pitt turned to Tulsa’s Todd Graham, who used Pitt as a stepping stone to the Arizona State job. Graham left the Panthers after one season, before a bowl loss, and a 6-7 record in 2011.

“I liked Coach Graham,” said Donald. “He gave me a chance to get on the field. That was my breakout year. I received a text that he was leaving. I thought it was a joke when I first got the message. He made a choice that was best for his family.”

Graham had switched Pitt from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4 with Donald lining up at defensive end. “It was different being out there,” said Donald. “You have a lot more responsibilities out there, making sure you contain. I had been playing inside all my life.”

Despite the coaching upheaval after every season, Donald wanted to stay put. He said a number of players talked about transferring. But Donald liked where he was, at Pitt, close to home. “If you transfer, you’re going to have a new coach anyway,” he said.

Donald felt comfortable quickly with the next coach, Paul Chryst, who had been the offensive coordinator at Wisconsin and took over the program before the 2012 season, Donald’s junior year. He returned the Panthers to a 4-3 defense, moving Donald back inside.

“Coach Chryst is a great person,” said Donald. “You got that feel for him. He’s honest. He was excited to be there.”

Pitt was pretty much the only place that Aaron Donald wanted to be.

His defensive line coach at Penn Hills, Demond Gibson, had played at Pitt. “I always wanted to go to Pitt or Penn State,” said Donald. “I wanted to be close to home.”

Surprisingly, Penn State made little effort to recruit him. Neither did most other major football colleges. Many held Donald’s height, a mere 6-foot, short for a defensive lineman, against him.

Donald’s older brother, Archie Jr., played linebacker at Toledo at the time.

“I thought about playing at Toledo, because I always wanted to play with my brother,” said Donald. “But I had to jump on (the offer from Pitt). Penn State never offered. I was kind of surprised. I heard a lot of teams were talking about my size. Pitt and Toledo were the only offers.”

Donald committed to Pitt after his junior year at Penn Hills. The bloodlines were in position for him to succeed. His father, Archie, played on the defensive line in high school. He went off to college, but had to quit school after his girlfriend became pregnant.

Archie Jr. taught his younger brother how important academics were, even for a football player.

“I had good grades and bad grades (growing up),” said Aaron. “When I saw what I had to do to get into college, I made the honor roll a couple of times. But I still had to qualify. I took the SAT and the ACT two or three times. I finally passed the ACT. What a relief. I was kind of nervous. I thought I might have to go to Milford Junior College (in New Berlin, N.Y.). The coaches there thought I was going to Milford. They had all my paperwork.”

The Pitt coaches had told Donald he would have a chance to play as a freshman. Donald wanted more. He wanted to start. He lost out to junior Chas Alecxih in the competition at defensive tackle.

 “I was kind of mad,” said Donald. “I had never not started in my career. I played about 10-15 snaps a game. I wanted to play every play.”

He played exceptionally well in a home game against Louisville near the end of the season, recording the first sack of his college career and knocking the quarterback out of the game. 

He was happy he had chosen Pitt, about 10-15 minutes from his home, with no traffic.

Donald went home often as a freshman. He missed his Mom. He missed her cooking. He never missed Sunday night dinner, whether it was steak, chicken or spaghetti. Sometimes she made spinach dip for him to take back to his room.

It took only one spring for Chryst to learn exactly what he had at defensive tackle in Donald.

“When I first came here, I did some quick research and knew he was one of our better players,” said Chryst. “I didn’t have any idea what kind of person he was. The more you got to know him, you became appreciative of the kind of person he is. He was our best player on defense (that first spring). I felt really lucky.”

By 2013 Donald knew what he needed to do to get ready for his senior year. The spectacular season he pieced together was more than just normal maturity.

“I worked my butt off,” he said of his offseason. “I got a lot stronger, so that I could shed blocks better and handle the double teams better. I was constantly in the film room. The only day I took off the whole summer was Sunday.”

It more than paid off.

They call playing on the offensive and defensive lines living in the trenches for a good reason. It’s not war, but it’s the sport world’s equivalent.

Donald spent more time behind enemy lines as a senior than a paratrooper.

He made 54 tackles, despite all the extra attention he received from opponents. He made 26 ½ tackles for loss, including 10 sacks. He also forced four fumbles, broke up two passes and was credited with 16 quarterback hurries.

“He made a decision to be great,” said Chryst. “He plays with a lot of emotion. It’s never been about him. He never draws attention to himself. He approaches the game the same way I do. He showed up every day and enjoyed practice.

“He took it to the (extraordinary) vs. Duke when he tackled the ball carrier and the quarterback on the same play. Are you kidding me. I was always begging him to make that kind of play because that’s what we needed.”

Chryst had worked with Outland Trophy winners before. While serving as offensive coordinator at Wisconsin, he tutored offensive tackles Joe Thomas, the 2006 Outland Trophy winner and Gabe Carimi, the 2010 winner.

Donald made 11 tackles, a spectacular number for an interior defensive lineman, in a Nov. 21 loss at Georgia Tech. Six of those were tackles for loss, totaling minus-16 yards. He also forced two fumbles in the game.

That performance certainly got the attention of Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, whose Irish were playing at Pitt the following Saturday. Kelly said in his weekly press conference that Donald was “somebody we’ll have to game plan for and slow down.”

The Irish did just that. Donald made only one tackle, but Pitt beat Notre Dame, 28-21.

“There were a lot of double teams,” Donald said of his senior year. “Even triple teamed. You can’t really be mad at that. It’s a sign of respect. Everybody wants to make plays. But that freed up a lot of guys around me.

“Notre Dame was the worst. I would switch from one side to the other and they would slide the protection to me. I got frustrated.”

The Panthers had opened the season with a 41-13 loss to Florida State. The Seminoles debuted a redshirt freshman quarterback named Jameis Winston. He completed 25 of 27 passes for 356 yards and four touchdowns. That was only the beginning for Winston.

“I didn’t expect him to be that big,” Donald said of the 6-4, 230-pound Winston. “I sacked him once, but he broke out of two more of my sacks. We started off good. But we made a lot of mistakes in that game. I never had a clue that (Florida State would win the national championship and Winston would win the Heisman).”

Donald finished his college career with five tackles, one of them a sack and another tackle for loss, in Pitt’s 30-27 victory over Bowling Green in a bowl game.

The other two finalists for the Outland Trophy were Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, son of USC All-American Bruce Matthews, and Baylor guard Cyril Richardson. Donald was surprised he won.

“Growing up you want to be an All-American,” he said. “I never thought I’d be the Outland Trophy winner in a million years. It’s been a great ride, to experience what I did.”

Chryst knew he had to say goodbye to one of a kind.

“With all his awards, he never once didn’t feel general appreciation,” Chryst said. “You don’t replace him. You hope guys learned from him. We’ll have to replace him collectively.”