MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – It seems that a new player within the WVU offense breaks out for his best game of the year every few weeks.
Last Saturday against Oklahoma State, it was junior running back Justin Johnson Jr.
Johnson rushed for 72 yards and a touchdown on 14 attempts (5.14 yards per carry) last Saturday, and he was second on the team in rushing behind quarterback Garrett Greene (117 yards, one touchdown).
With the running back room seeing tweaks and alterations on a weekly basis, could we see more of Johnson in Orlando against UCF this weekend?
“Justin Johnson earned more playing time…[He] got downhill fast [and] was really decisive,” WVU head coach Neal Brown said.
Injury and illness sidelined Johnson for three of the team’s seven games this season, and he did not log more than a carry in each of his first three appearances.
Up until Oklahoma State, sophomore WVU running back CJ Donaldson was the face of the Mountaineers’ rushing attack. Donaldson is currently riding a five-game touchdown-scoring streak, but he is also averaging over two fewer yards per carry this season (3.91) than he did in 2022 (6.05).
He reached the 100-yard mark in just one of the first seven games this season (Pitt – 102 yards). In seven games last season, he rushed for over 100 yards four times.
“Overall, [Donaldson is] not as good as he needs to be all season, but he’s just got to keep plugging,” offensive coordinator Chad Scott said. “He’s getting better. He’s watching a lot more film, and he’s practicing better. He’s resilient as well. He’s just got to continue to get better.”
Scott also implied that Donaldson’s feature-back status – and the pressure that comes with it – has led to some overthinking on Donaldson’s part. Last week was the first game all year in which Donaldson (13 carries, 39 yards, one touchdown) did not have the most carries from a WVU running back.
It was Johnson (14 carries) that lugged the bulk load.
“[Johnson] had a great week of practice last week,” Scott said. “He played exactly like he practiced. We went up against the defense in the competitive period like we do every week. The physicality, the determination, the urgency he ran with on Saturday, he practiced that way, so he literally played like he practiced.”
His breakout performance isn’t necessarily out of nowhere, and its clear the coaches are comfortable with him in high-usage situations. As a sophomore, he tallied six games with 10+ carries, though, four of those games came after Donaldson’s injuries.
Both Brown and Scott are also hoping freshman Jahiem White can string together better performances in practice so they can justify getting him more touches on Saturdays.
It’s been a while since White’s breakout performance and 53-yard touchdown in the annual Gold-Blue Spring Game. In four appearances this season, he is averaging 6.25 carries per game for 46.25 yards. The majority of his production came in a 12-carry, 110-yard performance with a touchdown against FCS Duquesne.
“He’s the one that can really hit more home runs,” Brown said.
“He can do things with the ball in his hands that we need,” Scott added.
In the other three games, he averaged 25 yards per showing.
Despite the position group underperforming as a unit this season, WVU is touting the No. 5 rushing offense in the Big 12 with 191.4 yards per game. They can thank Greene for contributing a fair share with his legs at the quarterback position.
Redshirt sophomore running back Jaylen Anderson is averaging 3.15 yards per carry with a touchdown in five appearances this season, and he could have had another score in the Houston game on a crucial drop-turned-interception in the end zone.
There have been flashes up-and-down the depth chart. Consistency is what the coaches are looking for.
“I like what we got in the room,” Scott said. “We just got to find some guys that got some juice.”