MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — CJ Donaldson has dealt with some change and adversity throughout his time in college football. Originally recruited as a pass-catching tight end, it didn’t take long after arriving at WVU for Donaldson to switch to running back.
A breakout performance against Pitt in the Backyard Brawl quickly led to an increased role in the offense. However, Donaldson suffered a scary-looking injury against Texas, and then a season-ending injury four weeks later against TCU.
Despite the two injuries, Donaldson appears bigger and stronger this spring than he was last fall. However, it’s because of those injuries Neal Brown and the coaching staff have to remind themselves how green the young running back still is at this level.
“I remind myself, and I tell our staff, like he doesn’t have all these reps logged. Like, he hasn’t been playing,” said Brown. “Now, I don’t want to get him tackled a bunch, but every full-speed rep he gets, he’s going to continue to get better.”
Brown was very complimentary of Donaldson following West Virginia’s seventh spring practice on Saturday. Donaldson was one of the touchdown scorers during WVU’s intrasquad scrimmage, despite only having a limited number of carries.
“He had a couple explosive runs, and showed good patience, and he’s a load to tackle,” Brown added.
Coaches not only note Donaldson’s physical abilities, but they have also commended his mental abilities. From all accounts, the young tailback is a quick study, and rapidly retains whatever information he is given. Brown, specifically, pointed out Donaldson’s knowledge of his responsibilities in the passing game.
The combination of his mental and physical gifts gives Brown and company the ability to move him around within the offense. That is just part of what the fifth-year head coach calls Donaldson’s elite ability.
“When you have someone that’s got elite ability, it lifts the others around you. Because they know, they see some of the things he does,” said Brown. “The other guys around, they know, like, that kid’s got a chance. So what he does is, he lifts those other guys up.”
Just over five months removed from the injury he suffered against TCU on October 29, Donaldson is not yet back at full speed. However, his natural power was on display during Saturday’s practice inside Milan Puskar Stadium.
Doing a drill to simulate pass blocking, offensive coordinator Chad Scott and another member of the program tossed weighted medicine balls toward the running backs. The idea was for the empty-handed rushers to hit the ball back to the coach who tossed it to them. Donaldson was fourth in the rotation for this drill. His outstretched hands met the weighted ball with a noticeably louder thud than the other tailbacks.
Asked if he and the other coaches have also noticed that this spring, Brown chuckled slightly. He said Tony Mathis is the strongest of the running backs but acknowledged the power Donaldson has at his disposal.
“CJ’s 240 pounds. He’s a big man, he really is. He’s a big guy,” said Brown. “He does, he’s got heavy hands. He’s only going to continue to get stronger too. But he does. He has the ability to be a plus blocker for sure.”
With the “big-time ability” that Donaldson has, Brown believes the way to tap into that potential is by continuing to get him live reps. The Miami, Florida native is still less than a year removed from making the switch to his current position.
“He needs playing against a defense, feeling blocks, reading blocks, and so that’s why the spring’s important to him,” added Brown. “We’re going to do our best to take care of him, but he needs those reps running the football because he’s only going to continue to get better.”