Dazzling start to college career continues for CJ Donaldson

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Over the opening month of the season, there’s been no better — or bigger — surprise to West Virginia’s football team than the emergence of true freshman CJ Donaldson.

Considering the Mountaineers essentially brought in Donaldson without a defined position, his success as a running back through three games is even more impressive than the eye-opening statistics suggest.

“I knew this in recruiting — he’s a really good football player,” head coach Neal Brown said. “We didn’t recruit him to play running back. We recruited him to be a hybrid H-back, inside receiver or maybe grow into a tight end. I knew he was a really good football player, and I felt really confident he would play as a freshman.” 

How, then, has it reached the point where Donaldson, once a Tulane commit, has become one of the main attractions on an offense generating 46 points per game?

“We did some OTAs in the summer and had a running back [Lyn-J Dixon] transitioning out of the program, so we only had three scholarship guys,” Brown said. ”I was watching him do some special teams technique work and his movements were really fluid. I told [running backs coach Chad Scott], ‘Let’s put him at all running back individual [drills] for the next couple weeks of OTAs. If he can’t do it, we’ll go get a transfer and there’s a couple out there. But if he can, let’s do it. I want to play the kid anyway and he’s going to be a matchup problem.’ Chad was like, ‘He can definitely do it movement wise.’”

Then came preseason camp, and with WVU electing to limit tackling on No. 1 tailback Tony Mathis, Donaldson’s play garnered more attention from the coaching staff.

“CJ started running versus our first-team defense and those guys do not want to tackle him. He’s big — 240 [pounds] probably. I don’t know what he’s weighing right now. He might be offended at that and 234 or 235 is actually what he weighs. But that’s a tough tackle. He has a natural feel for it.”

The second 100-yard effort of Donaldson’s brief college career came Saturday in a 65-7 win over Towson when the Miami native gained 101 yards on nine carries. Most of the damage came on an 82-yard touchdown run that gave the Mountaineers a 21-7 advantage at the time. It was the first of three Donaldson TD runs, giving him six on 29 carries for the season. Only two Division I players have more rushing scores.

“This was my third game ever playing running back,” Donaldson said. “I surprised myself with the long run, but I have to give a lot of credit to the offensive line and receivers. The offensive line made it easy and Kaden Prather had a great block down the field.“

Donaldson has 274 rushing yards and 9.4 yards per attempt, while making a smooth transition to a position he didn’t know he’d be playing when he settled on West Virginia.

“Throughout my whole football career, I never played the same position,” Donaldson said. “In high school, I started at the X, moved to Z, then Y and then moved to H-back, so it was always a transition. In little league, I played mostly defense. I’ve changed around a lot. I’m a football player and I can do it all.”

Donaldson and Mathis have been WVU’s primary ball-carriers, and the duo is responsible for 519 of the team’s 688 rushing yards and all but two rushing scores.

Mathis has 20 more carries than Donaldson, while fellow tailback Justin Johnson has 10 fewer. 

Brown is hopeful Donaldson can assume an expanded role as the season progresses.

“We have to get him in shape where he can play more plays,” Brown said. “People want to know why he’s not playing. Well he plays as many plays as he can play right now. He could’ve played a little bit more in the second half if we wanted him to, but he’s a good football player.”

After tough losses to Pitt and Kansas to start the season, the Mountaineers had their way with the Tigers and will pursue their first win over a FBS opponent Thursday at Virginia Tech.

Donaldson will undoubtedly and rightfully be a focal point of Virginia Tech’s defensive game plan.

“It got to us a little bit, but we have great leaders on the team that try to sync us back in and get our minds ready for each game,” Donaldson said. “We don’t look in the rearview. We try to look forward, so those two losses, we don’t really remember them. We look at the good and then look at the bad to see what we can do to make the bad good.”

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