It’s finally game week! In the past, we’ve limited these lists to just the top 25 players, but this season, we’re upping our game to 50. So just about every day until the season starts, there will be a new player profile up here as we count down to the top ACC player for 2013.
Obviously these lists are always completely subjective — and thus “completely bulletproof” — so feel free to weigh in with your own thoughts in the comments, too.
Our Pittsburgh preview just went up yesterday, but it bears repeating: the defense is what will guide the Panthers this season. And when you’re talking about the Pitt defense, you’re obviously talking about Aaron Donald. The senior defensive tackle has proven himself to be an absolute force on the line, tallying 24.5 TFLs over the past two seasons and 16.5 sacks as well. Those are the type of numbers you see from first-round draft picks, and crazy enough, he could still improve. Donald has alternated between a pass-rushing force (sophomore year) and a run-stopping force (junior year). So if he can put those two elements together, Panthers fans might just witness a very special season.
Unfortunately, Pitt might require that type of special season if they hope to get themselves back to the postseason. While the defensive line is sure to be the team’s strength, they also have fallen short as a group, notching just 24 sacks last season. Donald has been a huge part of the overall production, but as we saw last year, they might need more. At about 6’0″ and 285 pounds, he’s got the size required to be an elite defensive tackle. With a 4.9-second(ish) 40-yard dash, he’s at or around an average player at the position. But which will he trend more toward this season; elite or average? Benefiting from a veteran defense, I’m tempted to say the former.
Unlike previous seasons, Donald does come in facing plenty of expectations. He’s on several watchlists, is an All-ACC selection and already appears respected among ACC peers as one of the best defensive linemen around. That’s a lot to live up to, sure. But given how flexible and dynamic he’s already been to this point in his career, there’s no reason to think things will all suddenly fall apart now. Beyond just Pitt’s success, he’s got his own personal goals to focus on and a future in the NFL which will be tracked very closely over the next several months. He’s up for the challenge, and that could mean big things for the Panthers.