PITTSBURGH — After Pitt football finishes its spring practice sessions, a group of older players typically filters in, beginning to work individually.
One of those players, almost every day, is former Pitt All-American and Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Donald still lives in the area during the offseason, and is one of Pitt’s most visible alumni, not just working out at the facility, but visiting practices and attending games.
There are many fans of the reigning two-time NFL defensive player of the year in Pitt’s current program, but there are probably none bigger than redshirt sophomore defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman. Twyman has a similar build to Donald, and he has similar ambitions: to become one of the best defensive tackles in Pitt history. He even went as far to change his uniform number to Donald’s 97 before the upcoming season.
“The reason why I wanted to change my number is the same reason why Lebron wears 23,” Twyman said after practice on Thursday. “[Aaron Donald] is a person that I am inspired by and motivated by so I just thought it was a business decision and I want a be a great player like himself.”
After talking with reporters, Twyman stopped by to say hello to Donald, something he does any opportunity he gets.
“I try to ask him a couple questions here and there,” Twyman said. “I just pick his brain, I want to pick his brain every time I get to talk to him.”
Twyman has plenty of room to grow in 2019. After starting out 2018 toward the back of the Pitt rotation, playing behind Shane Roy, Amir Watts and Keyshon Camp. Twyman experienced an increase in playing time after Camp went down with a season-ending injury midway through the year. In all last year, Twyman played in 13 games, while making one start and recording 16 total tackles.
He’s hoping that experience leads to growth in 2019.
“I feel more mature and I feel like I slowed the game down a lot with the reps that I got last year,” Twyman said. “I am just trying to help the young guys slow the game down with the young d-tackles we’ve got in our program now.”
For Pitt, the defensive tackle group has a chance to be special. They have a lot of young but promising talent coming back for the 2019 season. In addition to Camp, Watts and Twyman, second-year players Tyler Bentley and Devin Danielson are expected to push for playing time. Defensive line coach Charlie Partridge has made a significant impact on them as a whole and is optimistic about the success they can have next year as a unit.
“We are a vertical attack type of defense,” coach Partridge said after practice. “We are working on getting up the field. We are are a vertical charged attack team. You know with Keyshon and Twyman and Amir Watts, those guys are showing that they are getting real good at how to vertically attack and make good, fast decisions. The other guys that are young and behind them are really learning from them so I am excited about the stats that they can produce for us.”
As Jaylen Twyman proudly discussed his new uniform number, the Pitt football legend who used to wear it was stretching just a few feet away.
Since Aaron Donald’s senior year in 2013, only two Panthers have sported No. 97, and both probably just had it handed to them by an equipment manager when they joined the program. Twyman, a 6-foot-2, 290-pound redshirt sophomore defensive tackle, had the gumption to switch to it after being No. 55 his first two years.
“The reason why I wanted to change my number is the same reason why LeBron wears 23,” Twyman said with a smirk, essentially calling Donald the Michael Jordan of Pitt defensive tackles. “He’s a person I’m inspired by and motivated by, so I just made a business decision that I want to be a great player.”
According to Twyman, who had 16 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss and half a sack last year in his first active season, coach Pat Narduzzi was all for it “as long as my work ethic matches that.” That’s no easy task, but Twyman also isn’t worried about any lofty expectations that might come with the jersey.