Pitt senior defensive tackle Aaron Donald is bidding to become the first interior lineman to lead the FBS ranks in tackles for loss since the stat was instituted in 2003.
Donald (6-foot-0, 285 pounds) leads the nation with 19.5 tackles for loss, three more than Missouri defensive end Michael Sam. The past two national leaders in the category, and four of the past five, have been linebackers. Last season's leader was Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, who was a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in May. The one non-linebacker in the past five seasons was Purdue defensive end Ryan Kerrigan, a former first-round pick of the Washington Redskins who now plays linebacker.
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Donald is doing his work from inside, where he uses a jet-quick first step and surprising strength to get into opposing backfields. Donald also is fourth nationally with nine sacks, including one against Florida State's Jameis Winston and two against Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas.
Donald, who says he patterns his game after Cincinnati Bengals star Geno Atkins, has 56 tackles for loss and 27.5 sacks in his career; that leads all current players. He had 11 sacks playing end as a sophomore in 2011, but moved inside to his more natural position last season.
Donald had six TFLs in last week's loss to Georgia Tech, leading Yellow Jackets coach Paul Johnson to say in his postgame press conference, "Ninety-seven [Donald's number] is one heck of a player. He created a lot of havoc in there."
That's a familiar refrain from opposing coaches -- and from Pitt coaches.
"He's a special player," Panthers coach Paul Chryst said in his weekly news conference. "We need him to continue to be more special."
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This week, Donald will be going against a physical Notre Dame front. Irish senior Chris Watt is one of the six or seven best senior guards in the nation, and NFL Media analyst Gil Brandt has Watt as the No. 54 senior nationally regardless of position. His battles with Donald will be worth watching. But the Irish's other starters on the interior -- true freshman guard Steve Elmer and sophomore center Nick Martin -- are going to have trouble trying to handle Donald.
Donald's lack of size is a detriment when it comes to the NFL, but his incredible production and quickness still could lead to him being drafted as early as the third round, some analysts have said. Pittsburgh hasn't had a player drafted since 2011.
"The good thing about the way he plays is he is able to affect the play whether you are going to him or away from him," Chryst told reporters.
Mike Huguenin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.