MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — CJ Donaldson has been a mix of hot and cold this year.
In the eyes of the coaching staff, Donaldson is not alone. The WVU running back room has had its share of ups and downs, but Donaldson is the face of the position group. His mistakes and successes are amplified.
Donaldson started the season with a physical performance against Penn State that prompted offensive coordinator Chad Scott to say he was the best running back on the field. Two weeks later, he eclipsed 100 yards rushing against Pitt for the second time in his career.
Seemingly the only thing that stopped Donaldson in the Backyard Brawl was when he left the game due to injury in the fourth quarter, though Neal Brown said after the rivalry win that Donaldson would be fine.
The sophomore running back started Saturday against Texas Tech, but was held in check after an impressive start to the game.
“He wasn’t real sharp,” Brown said after the game. “He ran really hard in the first half, and then we couldn’t get him going in the second half, but he’s fine.”
Donaldson ripped off two rushes that gained 10 or more yards in the first quarter. Scott described one of the runs as “phenomenal,” as he was impressed by Donaldson’s ability to gain yardage after contact. The young running back also found the endzone for the third time this season on a two-yard rush midway through the opening period.
After picking up 41 yards on the ground in the first quarter, Texas Tech’s defense clamped down on the Miami, Florida, native. Donaldson was held to just three yards on two attempts in the second quarter. He then gained six yards on two runs in the third quarter, and he had a net yardage total of -2 on two runs in the fourth period.
Donaldson finished the game with a season-low 48 rushing yards.
“He got off to a good start,” Scott said. “He’s just got to keep it going. There’s no excuses. He’s got to keep it going. He got off to a great start, [he’s] got to keep it going. I got to do a great job of keeping him going. But you know, with those guys up front — you know it’s a great offensive line up front — it all starts with those guys, and the way those guys are blocking there’s no reason not to be able to play at an elite level all the time.”
With the success that Donaldson has already had at the position — leading the team in rushing touchdowns last season, consecutive 100-yard performances against Pitt, and multiple highlight-reel runs — it’s easy to forget he has still not played a full season of college football. He played in parts of seven games last year before his freshman campaign ended due to injury.
In other words, the converted tight end is still learning the position, and the toll it can have on his body.
“It’s a learning deal for him. It’s funny, today he and DJ Oliver were joking, he said ‘Hey, when you get a chance, you’ll see what it’s like to take some of them short-yardage plays,'” said Scott. “But it is, a culmination of contact and consistent hits, you know what I mean. That’s something he’s got to do a great job of, taking care of his body throughout the week.”
Brown noted Monday that, in his estimation, Scott didn’t finish runs as well as he could on Saturday. He pointed to the style and physicality Donaldson ran with against Penn State and Pitt as examples of Donaldson finishing runs correctly.
It’s possible Donaldson’s sub-par performance against the Red Raiders is a sign of good things to come.
Saturday was the fourth time in his young career Donaldson has gained fewer than 60 yards on at least 10 carries in a game. In all three previous instances, he has rushed for at least 101 yards and one touchdown the next time out.
Asked Monday if Donaldson is dealing with any injuries, Brown reiterated what he said over the weekend.
“He’s fine,” Brown said Saturday. “He’ll be ready to roll next week, he’ll play better.”