MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — It’s no secret that West Virginia feels good about its running back room.
With Tony Mathis Jr., CJ Donaldson, Justin Johnson Jr., and Jaylen Anderson, the Mountaineers feel good about the depth and the rushing production they will get from the unit this fall.
One area that Neal Brown and company want to see that group improve in, though, is its production in the passing game.
“CJ’s got ball skills to play receiver. Jaylen Anderson, they used him a bunch in empty, so he caught the ball a lot in high school,” said Brown. “Justin and Tony, neither were asked to do that in high school, but they’ve been in the program long enough now where they’re plus-hands guys. They can run routes. Very similar progression like Leddie.”
WVU running backs caught a combined 25 passes for 107 yards and one touchdown last season. Donaldson, who missed the final four games of the year, led the group with nine catches, while Johnson led the way with 46 receiving yards.
That was a noticeable drop from the 2021 season, during which WVU running backs hauled in 45 passes for 255 yards and a score. The majority of that production came from Leddie Brown, who was among West Virginia’s leading receivers two years in a row.
“Leddie wasn’t asked to do that in high school, he kind of got better at it each and every year,” said Brown. “If you remember, his last year, we ran routes with him. You know, he had a bunch of catches his last two years. And, I think that’s a similar progression that Justin and Tony both have had.”
The use of running backs in the passing game hasn’t been higher under Brown than in his first year with the program. In 2019, six Mountaineer tailbacks caught at least two passes.
In total that year, West Virginia running backs were responsible for 70 receptions for 448 yards and four touchdowns. Another way to look at it is nearly 25 percent of the team’s total catches and 15 percent of the team’s receiving yards were recorded by running backs.
Last season, those numbers dipped to just 9.8 percent of the team’s receptions and only 3.9 percent of the receiving yards coming from the running back position.
“I do think our receiving numbers [this year] are going to be considerably more than they were a year ago,” added Brown.
Asked if he believes the running backs will tally more receptions than the receivers this year, Brown said he’s not projecting that to happen.
The head coach was later asked if there is a ratio or percentage of catches made by running backs, compared to other positions, he wants to see the team attain this year. He responded by saying he’s more concerned with having equal distribution across the board to the five eligible pass-catching positions (multiple wide receiver positions, tight end, and running back).
“We’ve got guys that have multiple skill sets. So, they’re good with the ball in their hands, so we’ve really worked on that this spring,” said Brown. “So, I do think the running backs and tight ends both will be more of a factor, but you try to distribute it between the five.”