MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Arguably the biggest development for West Virginia this season has been the emergence of true freshman running back CJ Donaldson.
The tight end turned ball carrier’s position change has looked like a genius move thus far.
In his first four games at the collegiate level, Donaldson has tallied a trio of 100-yard rushing performances, and has already scored six rushing touchdowns.
The Miami, Florida native is off to one of the best starts that WVU football fans have ever seen out of a true freshman. That’s even when stacking his start against the first four games by the best running backs in Mountaineer football history.
CJ Donaldson – 2022
Through four games, three of which have come against Power 5 opponents, Donaldson has rushed for 380 yards. The freshman back is averaging 95 rushing yards per game, and 7.3 yards per attempt.
In his debut, Donaldson rushed for 125 yards and a score against Pittsburgh. He is coming off a 106-yard performance in Thursday’s win over Virginia Tech.
The numbers: 4 games, 380 rush yds, 95 rush yds/game, 7.3 yds/rush, 6 TDs, 3 100-yard performances
Avon Cobourne – 1999
West Virginia’s all-time leading rusher did not play as a true freshman in 1998. He redshirted his first year in Morgantown, but burst onto the scene the following year. But in the first four games of the 1999 season, Cobourne anointed himself as the heir apparent to Amos Zereoue.
Cobourne rushed for 353 yards to start the ’99 campaign. That included 142 yards against Miami (OH).
Cobourne, the only 5,000-yard rusher in program history, didn’t get off to the start that Donaldson has in his young career, especially in terms of yards per carry. His redshirt-freshman season resulted in 1,138 yards on the ground.
The numbers: 4 games, 353 rush yds, 88.3 rush yds/game, 4.8 yds/rush, 3 TDs, 1 100-yard performances
Noel Devine – 2007
Playing behind Steve Slaton, Devine received just 24 carries through the first four games of his collegiate career. While his opportunities were limited early on, he made the most of them.
Devine scored a pair of touchdowns against Marshall in the second game of the 2007 season, and then rushed for a season-high 136 yards on just five carries the following week against Maryland. He finished his true-freshman season with 627 rushing yards.
Devine finished his career with 4,315 rushing yards.
The numbers: 4 games, 267 rush yds, 66.8 rush yds/game, 11.1 yds/rush, 3 TDs, 1 100-yard performances
Amos Zereoue – 1996
It’s hard to not make CJ Donaldson-Amos Zereoue comparisons given how Donaldson started his college career. Like Donaldson, Zereoue’s first carries came against the Pitt Panthers. The future WVU Hall of Famer ran 12 times for 135 yards and a touchdown in West Virgina’s shutout victory in the Backyard Brawl.
Zereoue quickly became the Mountaineers’ feature back as a true freshman, as he eclipsed 100 rushing yards in three of his first four games, and a total of five times that season. In fact, Purdue was the only team that held him under 100 yards through the first five weeks of the year.
When he was drafted by the Steelers in the 1999 NFL Draft, Zereoue was the all-time leading rusher in WVU history.
The numbers: 4 games, 474 rush yds, 118.5 rush yds/game, 5.9 yds/rush, 6 TDs, 3 100-yard performances
Steve Slaton – 2005
One of four running backs in WVU history to rush for 3,000 yards, Slaton also got off to a great start to his career statistically. However, he didn’t play in his fourth game until the seventh week of the season.
Slaton started the season as West Virginia’s fourth-string running back. In his second game, an Oct. 1 matchup versus No. 3 Virginia Tech, he rushed for 90 yards. He earned his first start the following week, and promptly rushed for 139 yards against Rutgers.
Seven days later, Slaton had one of the best games of his collegiate career. The true freshman rushed for 188 yards and five touchdowns in a comeback, 3OT win over Louisville.
The numbers: 4 games, 459 rush yds, 114.8 rush yds/game, 6.1 yds/rush, 6 TDs, 2 100-yard performances
Donaldson’s 7.31 yards per carry average this season currently ranks seventh in the nation among FBS players who have carried the ball at least 20 times.
For a player who came to West Virginia listed as a tight end, though knowing he would be used in multiple ways in the offense, Donaldson has quickly turned into one of West Virginia’s biggest offensive weapons.
To this point in his career, he’s rushed for more yards and touchdowns than Cobourne and Devine, more yards per carry than Zereoue and Slaton, and is equaled in 100-yard performances by Zereoue only.
With just four games under his belt, it’s impossible to know what the rest of his career will look like.
But at his current pace of 95 yards per game, Donaldson could be starting one of the all-time great careers in WVU history.