IRVINE, Calif. — Aaron Donald’s smile appeared as wide as the No. 99 on his jersey.
The Los Angeles Rams’ superstar resembled an excited kid on his first day of school as he made his way through a throng of fans to enter the practice fields on the campus of UC Irvine.
Donald greeted teammates and coaches, then stood alone, opened his arms and looked to the sky.
“So this is what training camp feels like!” he exclaimed, before the Rams began their first practice of the 2019 season.
Donald, 28, skipped camp the past two seasons because of a contract dispute. Last year’s holdout ended before the start of last season, when he signed a record-breaking six-year, $135 million extension, with $87 million guaranteed.
His return to camp has been more than welcomed by Rams coach Sean McVay, who had yet to experience it in his first two seasons as coach. “He raises the level of play of everybody here,” McVay said.
But if ever there was a player who didn’t need training camp, it’s Donald.
Despite holding out the past two seasons, he won back-to-back NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. Last season, he fell two sacks shy of tying former New York Giants linebacker Michael Strahan’s single-season sack record, which was set in 2001, and the Rams clinched a second-consecutive division title, the NFC Championship and advanced to Super Bowl LIII.
While some players bemoan the everyday grind of camp life, Donald, a four-time All-Pro, embraces it.
“He has a great attitude all the time,” defensive coordinator Wade Phillips said.
Donald has friends and family attending the workouts at UC Irvine and talks with them before practice. After practices, he retrieves his daughter, Jaeda, and son A.J., from their seats so they can join Dad on the field. Jaeda has become a fixture at Donald’s side and carries a smile as big as her father’s. A.J. took to following behind Donald as attempted with every ounce of muscle on his 3-year-old frame to carry Donald’s helmet.
“She doesn’t remember the last time she was at camp,” Donald said about his 6-year-old daughter. “And my son has never seen camp. So, to have them being around and watching me play football and them getting to run around the field, these are the types of memories that last forever.”
Donald reported to the Rams’ headquarters the past two seasons after camp in shape and ready to play after training throughout the offseasons at the University of Pittsburgh, where he starred before the Rams selected him with the 13th overall pick in the 2014 draft. But Donald’s hope this season is taking part in camp will lead to a faster start. Last season, he did not approve of his performance through the first three games as he failed to record a sack, though he went on to finish with 20.5 — the most ever in a single season by a defensive tackle. He also led the NFL in pass-rush win rate, beating his block within 2.5 seconds, at 46.3 percent, according to ESPN pass rush metrics powered by NFL Next Gen Stats.
However, a quick start in 2019, could mean a chance at the single-season sack record of 22.5. If he does that, a third-consecutive NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, something no player has done, could be right behind it.
“If it happens, it happens,” Donald said. “My main goal is trying to win the Super Bowl.”
Before the start of camp, McVay joked half-heartedly about Donald’s presence at practices and said it could be difficult to accomplish much on offense if Donald was on the field.
“You have to temper your expectations when you’re trying to block Aaron Donald, whether you have a single blocker or a double team,” said offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, who is tasked with preparing first-year starting center Brian Allen and left guard Joe Noteboom. “He’s so good that he can make you lose confidence.”
“You see there’s a few plays where I can’t even get to my run-fit,” cornerback Aqib Talib said, chuckling. “Aaron just tears the play up.”
The defensive line has gone through some changes since last season, when Donald was double-teamed on 63 percent of his pass rushes, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Veteran end Michael Brockers returns, but the team did not re-sign tackle Ndamukong Suh in free agency. Second-year pro Sebastian Joseph-Day, a sixth-round pick from Rutgers, is projected to start at nose tackle, though the Rams drafted Greg Gaines from Washington in the fourth round with the foresight that he could soon plug the middle.
After he proved a knack for making plays late in the season, the Rams also re-signed outside linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. before he hit free agency, then added veteran Clay Matthews. Together they are expected to provide an improved presence off the edge.
Last week, in a combined practice against the Oakland Raiders, Donald and Fowler reached quarterback Derek Carr multiple times. Afterward, a veteran Raiders offensive lineman said he had never faced a defensive lineman who exerted such effort on every single down in practice as Donald did.
Phillips, who also is experiencing Donald in camp for the first time since he became coordinator, praised the sixth-year pro’s performance but said there’s also room for improvement.
“He made some plays where he’s standing — they’re handing off the ball in the backfield, and he’s standing right in front of the guy and there’s two guys supposed to block him,” said Phillips, adding later, “He’s got some things he could work on, too, and he knows that.”
When Donald last attended camp in 2016, the season when the Rams relocated to L.A. after 21 seasons in St. Louis, fans were sparse and few could identify the already accomplished All-Pro.
Three years later, the ovation for Donald was bigger than he could have anticipated. At one point, a woman shrieked, “Aaron Donald!” repeatedly, as Donald could only glance up and grin, as he signed as many autographs as possible. Later, a young boy began to cry when Donald gave him a hug.
“I’m just here working,” Donald said, when asked about his camp reception. “I ain’t been here in two years, so it’s just good to be back in the grind with the guys.
“This is what I missed the most.”