MORGANTOWN, W.Va – Depth at running back has been one of West Virginia’s greatest strengths this season, but as it nears the end of its Big 12 schedule, that position group has been hit hard with injuries.
The year started with junior Tony Mathis, redshirt freshman Justin Johnson Jr. and true freshman CJ Donaldson splitting reps at the position. As the Mountaineers ready for Iowa State on Saturday, Johnson Jr. has the best chance of seeing the field.
The three-headed monster took its first blow during the Texas game when Donaldson exited with a scary injury that kept him out for the Baylor contest. After coming out of concussion protocol, the freshman returned to action against Texas Tech.
In Lubbock, Mathis, the usual starter, and Johnson Jr. found themselves watching from the sideline as they both were knocked out of the game due to injuries. The following week against TCU, Mathis was ruled out and Johnson wasn’t 100 percent, paving the way for Donaldson to make his first collegiate start.
The tight end turned running back who was already banged up himself sustained an injury in the first half, leading to Johnson entering the game.
Donaldson did start the second half but in the fourth quarter, he was injured once again, leading to redshirt freshman Jaylen Anderson finishing the game at the position. Despite the injuries, Donaldson managed to rack up 104 yards and a pair of touchdowns before his day was done. It was the fourth time in eight games he eclipsed 100 rushing yards.
After the game, head coach Neal Brown said Donaldson was “not good” as he was dealing with a lower-body injury. Donaldson had surgery on Monday and will miss the remainder of the year as a result.
So, as the Mountaineers prepare for an afternoon clash in Ames, they will not have their leading rusher at their disposal. Donaldson has 526 yards and eight touchdowns on the year.
They also could be without Mathis for the second straight game as he is questionable for Saturday. Johnson Jr. is one step up as Brown ruled him “hopeful” for this weekend.
”Justin Johnson, if he’s fully healthy, he’s got an opportunity to start, and then Jaylen Anderson has got to be ready to go. Markquan Rucker has to be on deck,” Brown said. “We also have ran it pretty good regardless of who has been back there. If it’s Jaylen, if it’s JJ, Rucker, whoever it is. The expectation is we’ve got to block, they’ve got to make the right read and be able to break some tackles.”
Anderson only had three carries for six yards vs. the Horned Frogs. Entering the game, Brown said the plan was five to six carries and around 20 snaps for Anderson in just his second appearance.
“I thought he had a nice short yardage run. He had one run where he broke a couple of tackles. He didn’t really have a chance on that. We missed a block right at the point of attack on the last drive so that’s now a fair evaluation,” Brown said. “He had a dropped pass, but I thought in that situation — in the fourth quarter against a top 10 opponent, I thought he carried himself just fine. The expectation is he will be better this week after having some experience.”
Anderson, redshirt freshman Markquan Rucker and freshman fullback Colin McBee are the only options left at running back behind Johnson.
Due to limited personnel, and also limited game experience, Brown said the staff will have to “get creative” with what they call in the run game, which could include adding another name to the list in certain situations.
“The screen game comes into effect and we have to find a role for Garrett Greene to continue to grow. You just have to find a way. They aren’t going to call off the game if we run out of running backs all of sudden, so we have to figure out a way, and we will,” Brown said.
The sophomore dual-threat quarterback caught two passes for a total of 13 yards vs. TCU. In week two against Towson, he had three rushing attempts for 59 yards and a touchdown.
“He deserves to play. He made two key catches the other day. He’s still a quarterback, and I want to be clear about that, but he’s one of our best skill players so we have to continue to find ways,” Brown said. “I’m in favor of playing him more, too. We will continue to find ways with him. He’s versatile. He’s a good athlete.”
Last season, Greene finished as WVU’s third-leading rusher with 306 yards on 47 attempts, finishing behind Leddie Brown and Mathis.
Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell agreed that finding touches for Greene would only benefit the team, especially due to the lack of depth in the backfield.
“Garrett loves football and he’s a good football player. We’ve put him at running back some, put him at slot, snapped him the football. He’s a guy who can do a lot for us,” Harrell said. “He’s a really fun guy to coach because when he steps foot on the practice field it’s almost like you are at recess….He’s a guy we can continue to build packages with, put him in different spots and dress it up and get him touches.”
Brown says the running backs who are ready by Wednesday’s practice will be available on Saturday. If Johnson Jr. is able to play, it will be his first collegiate start. Anderson has seen limited action in two games this season while Rucker hasn’t played since the end of 2021.