IRVING, Texas – You know Aaron Donald, winner of the Bednarik Award, Lombardi Award, Outland Trophy, Nagurski Award, unanimous All-American, ACC Defensive Player of the Year, ACC First-Team Defense, having led the nation with 26.5 tackles for losses and dropping the quarterback for 10 of his 28.5 career sacks at the University of Pittsburgh.
By these standards, he should be projected as a Top-5 pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, now within 13 days (May 8), the Dallas Cowboys holding down the 16thselection in the first round. And at the very least, Donald should be considered a sure Top-10 pick, playing the defensive tackle position in a 4-3 defense the Cowboys certainly still covet.
Yet, when it comes to Aaron Donald – when it always has come to Aaron Donald since he first started playing football at Penn Hills High School in Pittsburgh – there is this ever-trailing but …
He’s just not tall enough.
That has never changed, and chances are, going on 23 next month, short of a surprise growth spurt or being strapped to some stretching machine, that will never change. He stands for a defensive tackle a non-prototypical 6-foot-7/8ths of an inch, and during his weigh-in at the Senior Bowl they wouldn’t even begrudgingly give the 288-pounder 6-1.
Now, 6-1 would be fine if you are one of those fire hydrant nose tackles, say a 6-1, 330-pound space eater who can anchor down the middle of the line of scrimmage. But for most talent evaluators, they want these 4-3 defensive tackles more the size of a
But when you are gambling on percentages of success, really what the NFL Draft certainly is, it’s all about what best gives you the best chance to succeed. Just like quarterbacks. If you had your druthers, you’d rather take your chances on a 6-4 quarterback than a 6-footer. Just the percentages, certainly taking into account there are exceptions to the rule, but knowing those odds aren’t with you.
Donald came to grips with this some four years ago.
“My size, it’s always going to be about my size,” he says. “I’m not the tallest guy, but it is what it is, so …”
It is what it’s always been, and he learned that coming out of Penn Hills, a two-time Class 4A All-State defensive lineman, but only rated a 3-Star recruit by Rivals in 2010, and in Scouts.com’s assessment, all that was noted under the category of Areas of Improvement was SIZE, causing him to laugh when thinking back, saying with conviction, “I did get a little taller.”
So for a high school senior so decorated, the only college scholarship offers Donald says he had were from Toledo, Akron and Pitt. No other major football program was interested in a defensive tackle standing but 6-foot.
Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt – yes, the same Dave Wannstedt who was the Cowboys defensive coordinator on that 1992 Super Bowl championship team and went on to become an NFL head coach in Chicago and Miami – learned working with Jimmy Johnson at the University of Miami and then those four years in Dallas that, while size matters, there is something else that could very well override those missing inches.
“Recruiting high school kids is no different than selecting players in the NFL
Draft,” said Wannstedt, who for the first time in quite some time is not currently involved in a football program, having last coached special teams for Tampa Bay in 2013. “We used to use the term playmakers, we want playmakers, and I think people got tired of hearing me say that at Pitt. Just like we knew with Michael Irvin, a guy who just makes play.
“Aaron Donald was a playmaker.”
So Wannstedt offered Donald a scholarship, and though he only coached him for one season before his six-year tenure at Pitt ended, he paid attention the next three seasons, insisting, “Height was never a problem for him getting off blocks. He could use his hands, had great leverage and had explosiveness.
“Those things you can’t coach.”
A disciple of the 4-3 defense, Wannstedt says Donald is a perfect fit for the scheme because of two things:
“No. 1, his ability to pressure the quarterback.
“No. 2, he had great character.”
Even though Wannstedt thought highly of his defensive tackles during Donald’s freshman year – Jabaal Sheard, who now plays for the Cleveland Browns, was the conference defensive lineman of the year back in 2010 – “he came in and mixed into the rotation. We could not redshirt him as a freshman.”
And remember, it’s not as if Donald had some great growth spurt between Penn Hills and Pitt. Still the same size, yet still making plays.
Just as he did his entire four-year career at Pitt, going from a guy in the mix to a fulltime starter the next three seasons, no matter if Pitt was playing a 4-3 or a 3-4 front. Didn’t matter.
“I just play the game of football, man,” maintains Donald, who remains grateful to Wannstedt for giving him that chance, “so I don’t worry about what everybody says. I’m just doing my job and that’s playing the game of football and having fun.
“There was always negativity, talk about my size, but at the end of the day if you can play the game, you can play the game.”
Those aforementioned awards and college accomplishments are one thing. But Donald’s performances at the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine are another, as he continued to defeat those 6-foot-7/8ths long odds.
Poor Baylor guard Cyril Richardson found that out the first day of practice at the Senior Bowl. The two were involved in a one-on-one blocking drill, and Richardson, who checked in at 6-4½, 343 and considered one of the top guards in the upcoming draft, embarrassingly landed on his rump, simply overrun but the “too short” Donald.
Then at the combine, Donald runs a 4.68 in the 40, his quickness and explosiveness on display for the NFL decision-makers to see, before throwing up the 225-pound bench press bar 35 times. Thirty-five now! Remember, Hall of Famer Larry Allen won the Pro Bowl “Strong Man” competition that one year benching 225 an unbelievable 43 times as a grown man – only eight more than the 22-year-old relative kid.
Yet still, despite all of this, one scouting service analyzing Donald’s strengths and weaknesses this close to the draft still says of his weaknesses, “Odd body type and lacks ideal height and bulk … might not be ideal in every scheme.”
Some things just don’t change. Sometimes you have to recognize an exception to the rule.
The kid reminds me of six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle La’Roi Glover, the final three of those with the Cowboys. Glover wasn’t the biggest guy in the world, 6-2, 285, but he fit the Cowboys’ 4-3 scheme to a T and even did his best his final year in Dallas when Bill Parcells moved the club into a 3-4 alignment, using Glover as a quite-undersized nose tackle. Played his heart out.
And like Glover, for my money the absolute best free agent the Cowboys ever signed, especially when you factored in his character, Donald has the type of character you definitely want in a first-round pick – in your top five first-round selections for that matter.
“When I’d watch him play,” Wannstedt said of Donald, “I used to laugh because if I was a betting man I would lose. I’m thinking if an offense is trying to block one guy with three guys, Aaron won’t make any tackles. Didn’t matter. He still made tackles, would be the best player on the field.”
Athletic ability is one thing. Will is another, both great compensators for size if mixed together. This kid gets it.
When asked at the Senior Bowl how can Aaron Donald, a guy loaded down with all those senior-year accolades, improve, he answered appropriately in the third person, saying while looking his interrogator straight in the eye, “He can continue to grow, continue to work even harder, and that’s just the person I am and the way I was raised. Will continue to work harder and keep grinding, and with God’s will, everything will work out.”
Count me as one who won’t be betting against Aaron Donald, no matter who’s blocking him or how many, and certainly not solely basing anything on that much between the thumb and forefinger.
So, shhhh, let’s keep this to ourselves. Maybe all them others will fall for the only 6-foot-7/8ths knock, and he tumbles out of the Top 15. The Cowboys could only be so lucky to stop the fall at 16.