MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The battle of the sophomore running backs was a highly anticipated piece of WVU’s season opener at No. 7 Penn State.
PSU’s Nicholas Singleton was garnering most of the attention as he was a 1,000-yard rusher last season. West Virginia’s CJ Donaldson didn’t quite have that level of success as his debut season only saw seven games due to an injury, but he flashed his potential in multiple moments as a true freshman.
Before the game, head coach Neal Brown said the matchup provided Donaldson an opportunity to show he deserves to be in the same conversation as Singleton, the 2022 Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Now that the dust has settled, he believes Donaldson did exactly that.
“CJ had a point to prove,” Brown said. “I thought he ran really well. He wanted to prove he was the best running back on the field.”
Donaldson finished the night as the game’s leading rusher with 81 yards and a touchdown on 18 attempts. Singleton had 13 carries for 70 yards and a score.
“From an overall standpoint, physicality and everything, that’s probably his best football game thus far,” offensive coordinator and running backs coach Chad Scott said. “He never got tackled by the first defender. Had yards after contact. Was very physical in pass pro. We’ve seen that before, but he was very physical in pass pro. I mean, he was into it.”
After his breakout freshman campaign ended abruptly, Donaldson said he focused on changing his body and his eating habits to ensure he could sustain an entire season. Scott said there were a few times during fall camp that Donaldson got a little winded, but it was quite the opposite on Saturday night.
“His adrenaline was going. He was excited. Heck, he could have played every snap, to be honest with you, the way he was feeling,” Scott said. “I thought he was the best running back on the field.”
While Donaldson has improved in terms of taking care of his body, the coaches have to make sure they are doing their part, too. Scott said depending on the game and situation, they will try to limit his touches so they can keep him fresh and healthy.
“We have to put him in a position to get some free runs. I thought the other day, for example, we had a couple of toss plays and we did a good job of executing them early and getting him some free yards before he sustained any kind of contact. We have to find a way to get him free yards before he gets banged up,” Scott said.