West Virginia’s CJ Donaldson can only hope to match the great start to his college career from a year ago.
One of the Mountaineers’ best chances to turn around years of mediocrity rests on the health of their sophomore running back. Donaldson missed much of 2022 with injuries but is looking to repeat some early standout performances when the Mountaineers open the season at No. 7 Penn State on Saturday night.
“I’ve got a ton of respect for their running back,” Penn State coach James Franklin said.
The 235-pound Donaldson is still learning a position that he was thrown into in preseason camp last season due to a lack of depth. He embraced the move from tight end out of high school because he wanted to get on the field as quickly as possible. In youth football, he played mostly on defense.
“I won’t ever say I feel like a running back because I’m technically an athlete,” Donaldson said. “You can just put me anywhere and I can get the job done.”
The Mountaineers could use the help to avoid a third consecutive losing season, which hasn’t happened since they had four straight from 1976-79.
Despite not being on the depth chart when the season began, Donaldson burst onto the scene with six touchdowns in his first three games. His first career carry in the opener at Pittsburgh was a 44-yard run. He also blocked a second-half punt that led to his own scoring run and he finished with a season-best 125 yards on just seven carries.
Two weeks later, Donaldson had three TD runs including an 87-yarder against Towson, and he finished off the month with 106 rushing yards against Virginia Tech.
But October was as terrible as September was good. Donaldson had only four carries in an Oct. 1 game at Texas before sustaining a concussion, and he missed the following game against Baylor.
His first start of the season didn’t come until Oct. 29 against TCU. It’s also the same game in which he broke his ankle, forcing him to miss the final four games. When the injury occurred, Donaldson was leading the Mountaineers with 526 rushing yards, eight touchdowns and an average of 6 yards per carry.
Getting hurt “was definitely disappointing. But it definitely taught me a lesson,” Donaldson said. “I won’t look at it as something went wrong. Something’s either a lesson or a blessing. It just taught me a lesson on things that I need to work on within my body to be able to play at this level.”
Chad Scott, West Virginia’s new offensive coordinator, would like Donaldson to get at least 15 carries on Saturday.
“We’re going to let him roll, as long as he stays fresh,” Scott said.
The Mountaineers have other capable running backs to help lighten the burden after leading rusher Tony Mathis transferred to Houston. Veterans Justin Johnson and Jaylen Anderson combined for 82 yards per game last year. Scott also wants to work speedy Jahiem White and 240-pound fellow freshman DJ Oliver into the mix.
“Obviously if one of them gets hot and gets going and adrenaline gets rolling, we’ll stick with that hot hand,” Scott said.
Chances are, that could be Donaldson, who is only 19 and says Scott constantly reminds him to keep his youthful mentality, not to overthink and that he’s a “scary” football player when running full steam ahead.
“When your shoulders are square, people have to make business decisions on ‘do I want to tackle him every play?’” Donaldson said. “I definitely recognize a lot of things faster, just for me being a year within this position. I’m starting to play a little more loose, like having fun with it.”
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