Former Pitt Head Coach Reflects on Aaron Donald’s Rapid 2-Week Ascent During His Freshman Year

Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Dave Wannstedt, former head coach and person responsible for recruiting Aaron Donald to Pitt, joined the 33rd Team podcast and talked about the moment when he realized Donald would be a great player. And it wasn’t from the jump.

Wannstedt On A Young Aaron Donald

Wannstedt reflects on onboarding Donald to the team, which started with a speech about attitude, work ethic and paying your dues,

“I said listen, ‘You got to redshirt this freshman year. But you gotta keep working hard and keep a good attitude and learn from these guys. And your time will come.’ And he said, ‘Yes, sir. Whatever you think is best.'”

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NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh
December 3, 2011; Pittsburgh,PA, USA: Pittsburgh Panthers defensive end Aaron Donald (97) rushes the passer against the Syracuse Orange during the fourth quarter at Heinz Field. PITT won 33-20. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USPRESSWIRE

It didn’t take long for the then-19-year-old Donald to catch the attention of the coaching staff,

“Two weeks in training camp in the fall. The defensive line coach called me over and he said, ‘Coach are you watching the same tape as I am?’ I said, ‘Yes, I am.’ ‘He says, Aaron Donald is already one of our four best [defensive] linemen only two weeks into [training camp] and he is a freshman.’ And he ended up playing for me as a true freshman.”

What Made Donald A Great Defender

Wannstedt went on to describe what made Donald a great defensive lineman,

“He was a state heavyweight champion wrestler. That’s why he had such great leverage. His hand quickness is second to none in the NFL. For a small guy, you would think that these big 350-pounders could get on him. But he never gives you a big area to block because he’s so quick and athletic with his shoulders.”

“But he had first step quickness. You talk about the great pass rushers. The Jason Taylor’s. The best guys in the league. It’s always that first step on the outside. Who can move the quickest has the advantage? Aaron had as fast a first step quickness from a defensive tackle that I’ve ever seen. Then you got the strength. You got the leverage. Football is still a leverage. Who gets the lowest and who got the most strength with the most explosion usually wins. Aaron always won the battle.”

“So having a tackle that you make plays like he does and gets to run against the pass and be a great person and be a great player, teammate, leader. You don’t find those in the NFL.”

Unfortunately, Wannstedt wasn’t able to see the fruits of his recruiting labor. He was fired before the season ended, despite having three straight winning seasons. He was the only Pitt coach to win 10 games for the next 12 seasons

Aaron Donald’s Freshman Stats

Donald ended up playing in all 13 games his freshman year, collecting 11 tackles, three for loss, and two sacks. He finished his time at Pitt with 181 tackles, 36.4 percent of those tackles resulted in a loss of yardage, 29.5 sacks, 10 passes defended, and six forced fumbles. He currently holds the record for tackles for loss among Power-5 school defenders with 66.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Pittsburgh
Nov 9, 2013; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish offensive linesman Steve Elmer (79) blocks against Pittsburgh Panthers defensive lineman Aaron Donald (97) during the first quarter at Heinz Field. PITT won 28-21. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports