West Virginia fans got a pleasant surprise in an otherwise painful Backyard Brawl when true freshman CJ Donaldson burst onto the field to lead the game in rushing.
Players often switch positions when they arrive in college, but Donaldson is a unique case. On this team, for example, tight end Mike O’Laughlin was moved after joining WVU as a wide receiver. Andrew Wilson-Lamp also arrived as a wideout but is now in the cornerback rotation.
Seldom does a guy go from tight end to running back, but Donaldson got that chance after just a week of fall camp. He got the call in his first game.
“I was expecting it, but not this fast,” Donaldson said. “But when the opportunity came, I took it.”
And took it he did: in just two carries, Donaldson had 49 yards and a touchdown. He carried the ball five more times in the game, finishing with 125 yards for a 17.9-yard average.
Donaldson needed just one touch of the ball to earn status as a growing star on WVU’s squad, but it was the culmination of months of hard work and preparation. He said he got a lot of help from his fellow running backs, especially Tony Mathis Jr. and Justin Johnson, who made sure he got him acclimated to his new position.
“They took me in as a little brother,” Donaldson said.
Luckily, there weren’t many growing pains involved with the switch. Donaldson was a primary ball carrier in high school, catching the ball as both a tight end and a wide receiver. He even caught the ball behind the line of scrimmage a lot.
The only skill he needed to pick up was hand-offs. Everything else came naturally.
“I’ve been doing this since high school,” Donaldson said. “Making people miss is kind of my thing.”
That showed up on special teams, too, as he put a move on a Pitt punt protector to block a punt in the second quarter. He, of course, finished the sequence on the next snap with his first college rushing touchdown.
Donaldson’s progression was evident throughout camp to his coaches. Neal Brown said he would definitely play in his true freshman season, while Sean Reagan, his former tight ends coach, predicted that he would play all over the field in his WVU career.
From what Brown saw in August, Thursday’s performance was likely in the cards at some point.
“Y’all have heard me talk about him the whole camp, so I’m not surprised,” Brown said. “He’s a football player.”