MORGANTOWN — West Virginia’s injury luck continues to run sour this season as head coach Neal Brown announced Tuesday that freshman running back CJ Donaldson will miss the remainder of the year with an undisclosed injury.
“He’s going to miss the rest of the season, he had surgery (Sunday),” Brown said during his weekly press conference. “Not something that will keep him out a really long time, but he’ll miss the rest of the year.”
Donaldson has broken onto the scene as WVU’s leading rusher this season with 526 yards and eight touchdowns. The converted tight end has flashed his star potential with four games over 100 yards this season, including Saturday’s loss to TCU, in which he ran for 104 before exiting with an injury.
Donaldson missed time earlier this season after suffering a concussion against Texas. His absence will put further stress on the Mountaineers’ already-thin running back room over the final four games of the season.
Tony Mathis Jr., who’s second on the team with 492 yards and five touchdowns, did not play against TCU and sophomore Justin Johnson Jr. (285 yards, 3 TDs) has been limited recently.
Brown said Mathis will be evaluated and how he fares in practice today will decide his status for Saturday at Iowa State. There is a possibility for Johnson to start against the Cyclones with redshirt-freshman Jaylen Anderson as his backup.
“The reality of it is, anytime there’s an injury, while you hate it for that individual, it creates opportunities,” Brown said. “Justin Johnson, if he’s fully healthy, he’s got an opportunity to start and then Jaylen Anderson’s got to be ready to go and (Markquan) Rucker’s got to be on deck.”
Johnson has carried the ball nine times this season for 39 yards. Rucker, a former walk-on, has not played.
“It rolls on,” Brown said. “I wish we had CJ, I wish we had Tony, I wish we had all of them, they’ve run the ball well. But we’ve also run the ball pretty good regardless of who’s been back there. If it’s Jaylen, if it’s JJ, if it’s Rucker, whoever it is the expectation is that we’re going to block and they’ve got to make the right read and be able to break some tackles.”
Offensive coordinator Graham Harrell echoed Brown’s sentiment, saying they will not substantially alter the game plan based on which running backs are available.
“You’ve got to try to put together the best plan you can put together and trust your guys to go do it,” Harrell said. “All year that’s been our mentality, the next man up has to go in and do it. We still have to put ourselves into what we think is going to be the best position (to be successful) and then whoever’s in there will be given that opportunity and hopefully they can make some plays for you.”
Saturday’s game being on the road offers another obstacle for WVU, as the team will be limited to a 70-man travel roster. At home, the Mountaineers could dress as many running backs as they pleased.
“It comes down to who’s available on Wednesday,” Brown said. “Nearly everyone on our team at this point in their career would need to practice by Wednesday to be able to play. After Wednesday’s practice, we’ll finalize the travel roster based on who was able to practice Wednesday.”
Brown committed that Rucker would travel with the team this week but also opened the possibility of someone like freshman Colin McBee, a standout at University High School last season, to be called upon.
“The running backs I named, that’s all we’ve got,” Brown said. “Add Colin McBee and that’s our running back room. You’ve got to start being creative after that because that’s all we’ve got. We’re going to go with every intention to use all the running backs that we have, but we’ve got to be ready to go if we don’t.”
Brown said getting creative in the run game includes throwing more screen passes and using backup quarterback Garrett Greene, who caught two passes for 13 yards out of the slot last week.
“You’ve just got to figure out a way,” Brown said. “They’re not going to call off the game if we don’t have enough running backs all of a sudden.”
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