MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — After missing the past two games due to an elbow injury, redshirt sophomore running back Tony Mathis will return as WVU’s starter vs. Oklahoma.

In Mathis’ two-week absence, CJ Donaldson made his first career start against TCU. Unfortunately, that was the last game of Donaldson’s true freshman campaign, as he is out for the remainder of the season after a lower-leg surgery last week.

With Mathis and Donaldson out, WVU’s three-headed monster quickly dwindled to just one. Justin Johnson Jr., who appeared in every game this season, made his first start in Ames with Jaylen Anderson serving as the backup.

West Virginia’s ground game was nonexistent against Iowa State. It finished with 76 yards.

While it was just the third time this season the Mountaineers didn’t eclipse 100 yards, offensive coordinator Graham Harrell said that isn’t a reflection of how Johnson Jr. performed.

“Just by individual performances, Justin probably played better than anyone. He didn’t have a lot of competition in that category but he probably played the best of any of him, but having Tony back will definitely help,” Harrell said. “Tony loves football and bouncing around and brings good energy. Having him will help from that standpoint and allow you to keep your backs a little more fresh.”

Head coach Neal Brown describes Mathis as a physical, downhill runner who excels in short-yardage situations.

As Harrell said, having Mathis in the lineup will “definitely help” WVU, especially as it faces an Oklahoma team that is last in the Big 12 in rushing defense.

For as talented as Mathis is, there’s another factor that makes his return even more valuable. Brown said behind center Zach Frazier and quarterback JT Daniels, Mathis is one of the top team leaders.

“From a skill position after JT, Tony is probably the leader among those guys,” Brown said. “He’s vocal. He’s got a real positive energy about him. He’s been patient and put a bunch of work in. He’s a guy that works really hard.”

He added: “Just having him in the lineup brings up not only the running back position, but also the tight ends and the receivers because they look at him as a guy they believe in.”

Mathis has rushed for 492 yards and five touchdowns in 2022. He’s averaging five yards per carry and 70 yards per game.