Due to numerous injuries to WVU’s running back room, redshirt freshman Jaylen Anderson has been thrown into the fire over the last two weeks.
The three-headed monster of Tony Mathis, Justin Johnson Jr. and CJ Donaldson carried the Mountaineers for most of the season. Unfortunately, the trio of ball carriers all sustained injuries within a two-week span and the offense hasn’t been quite the same since.
Donaldson is out for the season after sustaining an injury vs. TCU. Mathis’ elbow injury came the week prior at Texas Tech. He’s played in the last two games with a brace on his arm and the injury continues to linger. Johnson Jr. also got a little banged vs. the Red Raiders but has yet to miss a game.
Insert Anderson. He did see a few snaps vs. the Horned Frogs but he was called into action in a true backup role starting against the Sooners.
Last week vs. K-State, Anderson finished as WVU’s leading rusher with 69 yards. He was averaging 9.9 yards per carry.
“I’ve sat up here for two years and talked about how talented he is and that he’s just got to put it together,” head coach Neal Brown said. “Now you are seeing that. He’s talented. He’ll get some more work this week and I’m excited bout his growth potential.”
Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell also liked what he saw from Anderson on the field but it was how engaged he was off of it that really caught his attention.
“I thought he had a really good week last week and it showed up in the game. He’s a kid with a whole lot of talent,” Harrell said. “When you have the opportunity to get some reps, you have the opportunity to grow up in a hurry. The last couple of weeks, seeing him around the building or in Coach Scott’s office watching film and trying to study tape. That’s a sign of growth. It helps when you know you are going to get in, but it helps you perform on Saturday, too, because if you are prepared, you go in with confidence.”
Harrell said when young guys are thrust into action, it will have one of two outcomes. They will either get exposed for not doing the little things right or they will rise to the challenge. Anderson currently fits into that second category.
“He’s always been good with a football in his hand. It’s doing everything else right that he had to figure out. Whether that be protection or getting tough yards. We weren’t sure what he would like in short-yardage and we gave him a few short-yardage runs. I think he may have got explosives on both of them,” Harrell said.
WVU’s running backs have the advantage of versatility. Donaldson was naturally strong so he had the ability to just run over defenders rather than have to run around them.
Anderson weighs about 20-30 pounds less than Donaldson, but if he focused on getting behind his pads and getting tough yards, his coaches think he could develop into that type of player.
“He is more elusive than you would think for his size. When he makes a guy miss, it’s not like ‘oh man that was a super twitchy move’. It’s just a little suddenness that is elusive and people can’t tackle. He’s big enough that I think in time he will be a hard guy to tackle, as well. I think the more he plays the more you will see that.”
Another piece of Anderson’s skill set is his natural ability to catch the ball. He hasn’t had the chance to show it yet at the collegiate level, he’s only caught one pass for 15 yards but his high school numbers reflect that area of his game.
As a junior, his 51 passes for 833 yards and 11 touchdowns accompanied his 1,000+ rushing yards. In a shortened senior season, he finished with nine receptions for 124 yards and two scores.
The next step for Anderson is putting it all together. Harrell said if he can make people miss, catch it out of the backfield and get tough yards, that will help him take the next step in becoming a complete player at the position.