WHEN James Frawley left Melbourne for Hawthorn in last year's free agency period, Tom McDonald was the obvious candidate to step up and lead the Demons' defence.
But just how well the 22-year-old has performed to start 2015 has surprised many. Not only are his defensive skills as sound as they ever have been, McDonald has added a more refined attacking element to his game.
"His two-way stuff has improved. He's running forward. He's kicking goals and that's been a really big focus for us," Demons coach Paul Roos said during the week.
"He's got a really good balance between defence and attack and it's something we're really trying to push across to all of our defenders."
How McDonald acquits himself against Adelaide spearhead Taylor Walker will have a large bearing on the outcome of the Crows-Demons clash at Adelaide Oval on Saturday afternoon.
McDonald racked up a team-high 26 disposals in a best afield display in the Demons' stirring 26-point win over Gold Coast in round one, while he could hardly be blamed for Melbourne's second-half capitulation against Greater Western Sydney last weekend.
The 194cm, 92kg defender held Giants spearhead Jeremy Cameron to one goal, albeit an absolute pearler tucked up against the boundary line.
But, perhaps, his finest piece of play came at the 14-minute mark of the first quarter.
Seeing the opportunity to take off up the ground with his team in possession of the ball, McDonald bolted forward to end up on the end of a Ben Newton pass in the middle of the corridor with Cameron trailing behind.
It was just the third goal of McDonald's 62-game career.
McDonald might not be in a position to hit the scoreboard every week, but the fact he is willing to run off and create in such a manner demonstrates the advancements he has made in his game.
McDonald – the 53rd pick in the 2010 NAB AFL Draft – is averaging career-highs in disposals (21 per game), marks (10) and intercept marks (4.5) in 2015.
He ranked third in the competition for intercept marks and second in the League for spoils before round three commenced.
His metres gained numbers, 347 per game, are through the roof and he is yet to lose a one-on-one contest this year.
If Cameron was difficult to contain, then McDonald will have his hands full against Walker who is the focal point of a forward line that is ranked No.1 in the competition.
Walker sits second in the Coleman Medal count, behind Eagles spearhead Josh Kennedy, having kicked eight goals in his first two games.
The Crows skipper has tremendous agility and his ability to protect the 'drop zone', or where Walker thinks the ball will land, is a key strength.
McDonald is regarded as Melbourne's best endurance athlete, while he also has the physical capabilities to compete with Walker in the air.
But Roos recognises the dangers posed by the Adelaide spearhead if the pressure up the field is not where it needs to be.
"We need to play good team defence to stop Adelaide from getting the ball lace-out to Walker, so that's going to be a big focus for us," Roos said.
Being accountable is important for Melbourne's defenders but a clear directive from the coaching staff – which was a key focus throughout the summer – is to run off and create.
Roos said McDonald had embraced that mindset.
"You can't just be a stationary defender and I think Tommy's really taken that on board," Roos said.
"He's defending well but he's also challenging the opposition when he's got the ball."
Tom McDonald – Year-by-year
D = disposals
M = Marks
IM = Intercept Marks
R50 = Rebound 50s
SL = Score Launches
MG = Metres Gained
One-on-one contests lost
2015 0% (0 out of 6)
Stats supplied by Champion Data