PITTSBURGH (AP) — Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald's breakout 2012 season landed him on the All-Big East First Team. It also led to speculation Donald would skip his final year of school and take his chances in the NFL.
There certainly was enough interest after Donald led the conference with 18.5 tackles for loss and picked up 5.5 sacks.
Sorry, Donald had other plans. The NFL will have to wait. Donald's work with the Panthers isn't quite done yet. The only person happier about the decision than Donald might be Panthers coach Paul Chryst.
"I don't know if I can put a value on having Aaron back," Chryst said. "Obviously he's a good player, but he's also one of our leaders."
Chryst has known Donald for just two years, but senior middle linebacker Shane Gordon has known Donaldfor his entire collegiate career. The one constant they have learned about "AD" isn't just his strength, but his ability to take charge without saying much.
"He's a good guy," Gordon said. "He might not say too much leading, but he leads on the field. His actions lead."
It's the kind of leadership Pitt needs if the Panthers hope to pull off an upset against No. 11 Florida State on Monday night. For the Panthers to win, Chryst believes his team has to dominate the line of scrimmage.
"We count the defensive line as one of the strengths of our program," Chryst said. "In most football games, whoever controls the line of scrimmage is the team that has the advantage."
Donald echoed that statement, and knows Pitt has a challenge against an offensive line that returns four starters, all of whom weigh over 300 pounds.
"Every team knows that it starts up front," Donald said. "So we're going to go out there and battle. And I know there's going to be a hard-fought game."
At 6-foot, 285-pounds, Donald and the rest of his linemates will need to fight this battle harder than possibly any other. When it comes to Donald, in his final lap at Pitt, Chryst's expectations are high.
"Aaron and every senior should play the best football of their career," Chryst said. "If we're going to be successful, he needs to play well."
In Donald's eyes, playing well means being a factor on almost every snap.
"The more plays we make, the better chance we have to win," Donald said. "So that's what I'm trying to do. Just play my game, play fast, try to fly around and hopefully make a ton of plays because the more plays that I can make, hopefully we can win."
While Pitt moves through its 2013 schedule, message boards and Draft forums will track Donald's progress. NFL DraftScout.com, for one, ranks Donald as the no. 11 defensive tackle in the 2014 draft class, a ranking that could certainly improve on many draft boards pending Donald's performance against bigger and faster competition in the ACC.
But that's not Donald's concern at the moment.
"If it comes, it comes," Donald said. "Right now I'm in college and that's my focus, playing for Pitt, playing at the college level. God willing everything go in place from there, but right now my focus is on college."
From the perspective of the linebacker who's watched Donald go to work in front of him over the last three years, there's no difference.
"Nothing's changed, really," Gordon said. "He's the same guy, just works hard. Just nasty."