"In my junior year, he was kind of a backup guy that came in and out," said Watt of Donald in a 15-12 Notre Dame win at Heinz Field. "He was actually one of the best players I'd played, I thought, when he was a backup. He didn't play as much and that was nice for us."
Donald will play plenty Saturday night, just as he did in last season's 29-23 triple overtime matchup with the Irish.
"Last year we had about 101 plays on offense and he went hard on every snap," said Watt of the November 3 epic in South Bend. "He doesn't really come off the field. He's a guy that I think is the smartest defensive line player we'll play this year. He does a really good job of reading O-Linemen, a really good job of knowing the formation an offense is running."
Donald's film study -- matched with preternatural ability to defeat blocks -- has helped produce an astounding 19.5 tackles for loss through eight games this season. He likewise ranks as the nation's career sack leader with 27.5, ahead of notables such as BYU's Kyle Van Noy and South Carolina's Jadaveon Clowney.
At 6'0" 285 pounds, Donald's lack of stature, a definitive drawback for his future NFL Draft prospects, serve as a strength at the collegiate level.
"One thing is leverage, being shorter," said Irish center Nick Martin of Donald's expert use of his frame. "He's a slippery guy, he gets off blocks. He's a really smart player, you can tell he watches a lot of film. He knows what your'e going to do. If something works on him, a block, next time he'll be ready for it."
A History of ProductionDonald finished 12th nationally in 2012 with 18.5 TFL. With 19.5 this fall, 16 in 2011, and three as a rookie in 2010 give him 57 through 46 games, a number that would rank second all-time at Notre Dame behind only the incomparable Ross Browner, whose record of 77 TFL from 1973, 1975-77 has not been approached by a Golden Domer since. (Kory Minor, 1995-98, ranks second with 44.5.)
"Aaron Donald has been a one-man wrecking crew, especially last week against Georgia Tech," said Kelly of Donald's remarkable six tackles for loss effort. "Against the option, he was a force. We know about him from last year. Big, physical defensive lineman and he will be somebody that we will have to game plan and find a way to slow down. Tackles for a loss, he's in the backfield, very active.
"You have a powerful guy, but he's also extremely quick at the point of attack. He uses a lot of different techniques to get into the backfield, and we're going to have to -- we were just talking about things that we will have to do to mitigate some of the things that he does."
Watt and Martin, along with rookie right guard Steve Elmer, will be at the forefront of that mitigation plan.
"We're going to have to do a good job of being balanced in what we're doing and not giving anything away in our stances," said Watt. "He does a good job using an O-Lineman's weight against him. If you have too much weight on one foot, he'll get you going that way and go the other. He does a really good job in the run game of penetrating, or sometimes he can make you think he's penetrating so you go hard and he slips through there. He's going to be a really good test for us. I look forward to it."
Watt echoed Martin's comments that Donald's 6'0" frame is of no detriment.
"I think that's what a lot of people think when they go against him. But he's got really long arms and uses them to his advantage," said Watt. "He'll get on you and if you're not on your game every play, he's going to make a play on you."
Martin noted that while technique is crucial every week, facing a player with Donald's ability augments that necessary focus.
"There's no doubt. Blocking a player like Big Lou (Nix), obviously they're different, but if your technique's not on, he's getting off the block," said Martin of facing future first round selection Louis Nix each practice. "Every week technique is the most important thing, but this week it's an added emphasis."