As part of our 2012 season preview, we’re counting down the top 25 players in the ACC for this season, from 25 to one. Obviously these lists are always completely subjective, so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments.
After a breakout sophomore season in which he recorded 11 sacks, now all eyes are on Aaron Donald in 2012. Already named to three major watch lists (Lombardi, Bednarik, Outland), he’s quickly ascended as the centerpiece of the Pittsburgh defense, and a potential star on a national scale. With a quick set of hands and nice burst off the line, his transition to the tackle spot in the team’s new 4-3 scheme stands to benefit him a ton. That said, there’s also a much larger target on him this year as well.
Donald’s lucky to possess some true natural ability too, because his size (6’1″ and 270 pounds) looks like a potential liability on paper, as does his 40 time (4.9 seconds). To truly excel this season, he’ll need to make the most of matchup advantages and at times, even act as a decoy for the larger Pitt pass-rush. Of course, he also gets the benefit of facing undersized Big East offensive lines, so really, the pieces are already there for a special season.
Individual achievements aside, Donald will be spearheading a renewed stress on defense for the Panthers, which — combined with the running game — could actually deliver a surprise conference title in their last season before joining the ACC. As long as he’s healthy, he’ll be one of the league’s best defenders and a potential first-round pick come April, too.