Barring some kind of strange circumstance, Aaron Donald will win a major college football award this year. The defensive lineman for Pitt will also even snag a few Heisman votes.
I'm taking a bit of a bold stance on this, but I think the big man should have his jersey retired for Pitt.
Hear me out - it's a move that seemingly reeks of 'too soon.' But here's the thing - if a player was good enough to have his jersey retired, does it really matter when it happens? It's like the old Hall of Fame argument - if a player is a Hall of Famer, why keep him off the first ballot? It doesn't need to happen right away, but I do think that Donald's season and career will hold up over time.
On the surface, his name might not scream superstar to you. But Donald didn't just have a great year for Pitt, he had a legendary one. His tackles for loss average per game didn't only lead the nation but no one else even came close. And as an interior lineman, Donald's ten sacks were downright scary. Also, the four forced fumbles he had are something you rarely hear about. Those ten sacks also lead all interior linemen who have played major college football this season. Memphis' Martin Ifedi has 11 1/2, but playing in the AAC, the level of competition he's faced hasn't been nearly what Donald has seen.
Also, keep in mind that this isn't the first time Donald has dominated. Sure, people are taking notice this season and he's having a big year but Donald isn't a one-hit wonder.
Donald had 34 1/2 tackles for loss the past two seasons and he also had 11 sacks in 2011 - as a sophomore. He was a first-team All Conference selection last year and will be one again this year. Ranking seventh in the nation in sacks per game in 2011, it's hard to imagine why he wasn't a first-team selection then, too. In reality, Donald was a first-team all conference player for three straight seasons. And with 28 1/2 sacks and 27 solo sacks, he's the FBS active career leader in both of those categories. That's an impressive feat but playing as an interior lineman for half of his career on a weak defensive line (I'll get to that in a minute), it's a borderline superhuman one.
Greater evidence of Donald's dominance was doled out by the athletic department this week in their comparisons of his year with Ndamukong Suh's monster year in 2009. In that season, Suh won a slew of major awards including the Lombardi, Outland, Nagurski, and Bednarik Awards. His year, though, fell a little short of what Donald has done. In three fewer games, Suh had more tackles but Donald had 5 1/2 more tackles for loss, three more forced fumbles, and only two fewer sacks. Donald beat him in per game averages in all three categories.
Because of it, he should walk away with some major college football hardware and he'll even get some Heisman votes. Players like that simply don't come along all that often.
Part of Donald's brilliance is also in the fact that he has played on some pretty bad defensive lines the past two years. In 2012, Donald led the team with a modest 5 1/2 sacks, but he faced several double teams since no one else on the line garnered much respect and Ty Ezell was next with only 3 1/2 sacks. The same thing happened this season. Bryan Murphy was the lead guy behind Donald and he had only four sacks. The defensive ends Donald has had to play with since he moved inside have done next to nothing when it comes to pressuring the quarterback and if Donald had better players around him, his numbers would be even more jaw-dropping.
Lastly, Donald also should get consideration in some small part because he stuck around four seasons. That's, of course, not to say that it's the deciding factor or that Donald wouldn't have left early if his NFL Draft stock were more favorable. But when it comes to remembering all time players, sticking around for four years has to count for something.
Detractors will point to Pitt's mediocre record the past three seasons, but to blame Donald for that is a little like saying Barry Sanders shouldn't be a Hall of Famer because he played for some rancid Detroit Lions teams. Fact is that without Donald, there's a very real chance that Pitt doesn't go bowling. He's made any number of plays this season and has certainly impacted more than one game, but his blocked extra point against Syracuse was really the icing on the cake and that one-point win was what Pitt needed to play an extra game.
Pat will chime in later with a counterpoint as to why Donald should not have his number retired and there's certainly a good argument to be made there. But for me, he was a special, special player ... and that's enough to see his banner hanging from the rafters at Heinz Field. It may not need to happen right away, but it's something that should happen eventually.