Last season’s juniors are now this season’s seniors, and with that comes extra responsibility and expectations. In the ACC, while there were plenty of players selected in the NFL Draft, the conference still returns a strong group of seniors — many of whom are set to make a strong impact in their final seasons of eligibility.
Over these few weeks, we’re going team-by-team in the ACC to identify the “standout senior” that’s key to his respective squad, and why he’s so important. Think we should’ve featured another player, though? Feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments.
With an offense in flux (new QB, new running back), it appears that the Panthers will be relying on their defense to carry them — at least in the season’s early goings. And for the typically strong group, conversations must start with Aaron Donald, who’s arguably been its best player for the past two years running. While it took some adjustments for him to get used to the transition to defensive tackle last year (he played defensive end as a sophomore), it’s already evident that Donald will be fully ready to lead the charge in 2013.
As a sophomore, Donald actually managed to be one of the country’s top (albeit unsung) pass-rushers, amassing 11 sacks in 13 games — setting up some lofty expectations and NFL dreams as a junior. With the move inside to tackle, however, that sack production predictably dropped off (down to 5.5). But to look at just sacks would be selling him short. Where Donald actually made great strides last season was in the running game — turning him into a much more well-rounded defensive lineman. In 2011, he had 16 tackles for loss (11 of which were sacks), but in 2012, he upped that number to 18.5 (5.5 were sacks). Donald, more than most players in the country, has displayed a knack for getting quick penetration into the backfield, but yet, he’s still rarely given credit from national media. Could that change this fall?
Maybe not, honestly. At 6’1″ and 275 pounds, scouts don’t necessarily see Donald as imposing, and playing for the Big East and then the ACC, you’re not going to be done any favors in terms of positive coverage (fair or not, it’s the truth). But there is some hope. Back in March, Donald was put onto the Lott IMPACT Trophy watch list, which honors the country’s best defender that makes an impact on and off the field. In Athlon’s spring preview for Pitt, they also seemed to recognize the importance Donald plays for the defensive line. If the Panthers hope to contend in their first season in the Coastal Division, it’ll mostly be due to Donald’s efforts. I’d argue he’s the most important player on this Pitt team, whether he gets the appropriate praise or not.