After a redshirt year and a failed switch from linebacker to end, the 6-1, 225-pounder returned to linebacker last fall. He recorded 10 tackles in a junior varsity game against Hargrave Military but did not record a tackle in varsity action – even on special teams. So, heading into 2009, Donald was all but forgotten.
Then a funny thing happened ... he got remembered. When first-year UT head coach Lane Kiffin opened up all of the linebacker jobs during the spring, he gave Donald a bunch of practice reps – just to see what the former High School All-American could do.
"He really did not have a bunch of snaps coming into camp," Kiffin recalled, "so we had to give him a chance."
Donald took the chance and ran with it ... literally. As he grew more familiar with the Vols' new Tampa-2 defensive scheme, he began to make a few plays in practice. Although he is listed No. 3 at strongside linebacker on the post-spring depth chart, Donald is well positioned to challenge LaMarcus Thompson and Shane Reveiz for the first-team job.
"He can really run," Kiffin noted of Donald, "but learning the system takes a little bit of time. If he continues to learn it, he's going to improve more and more. He's got all of the tools."
Tennessee really needs to put those tools to use because linebacker appears to be the weakest position on the Vol defense. Senior Rico McCoy is a proven performer, with 27 career starts at weakside linebacker. After McCoy, however, the second-most experienced linebacker is Nick Reveiz, who has one career start.
"I think our (linebacker) situation isn't as strong as our secondary and our defensive line," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said recently. "I think we need to keep working.
"Except for Rico, our 'backers have not played much, even though they've been here. They're acclimated to college football but they're still young."
McCoy is coming off a 2008 season which saw him register 87 tackles. After him, there's a huge drop-off in productivity. Savion Frazier and Nick Reveiz had 18 tackles each last fall, Thompson 10, Daryl Vereen 3 and Josh Hawkins 1.
"I saw our team getting better and better," Monte Kiffin said, "but we have to hurry up and get there because they haven't played a lot."
Some of those guys who "haven't played a lot" could figure prominently in 2009, however. Chris Donald, for instance.