Football, Sports, WVU Sports

Running backs all-in on WVU’s scheme change for 2023

MORGANTOWN — In 2022, WVU football had four running backs rush for over 250 yards, three of them eclipsed 400 yards and all four averaged more than four yards per carry. And best of all, the entire quartet is back for the 2023 season.

With that kind of production, it is unsurprising that much of the talk this offseason has been about how the Mountaineers can best utilize four productive running backs. Head coach Neal Brown and new offensive coordinator Chad Scott have both talked at length about their desire to get multiple backs on the field at once, either as blockers or receivers, and how effective it could be.

But, it’s not just the coaches who are excited by the prospect — the running backs themselves have bought in as well.

“I like it,” junior Tony Mathis, the elder statesman of the group, said this spring. “We have great running backs obviously and a deep room. It’s going to be a great package for us.”

Mathis is entering his fifth season with the Mountaineers, far and away the most experienced of the running backs, and has taken on a leadership role in the room.

“I definitely feel like an old head now,” he said with a chuckle. “It’s pretty cool though. When I was young, I knew how it was coming up. I feel like I teach very well, Coach Scott coaches us well, so I try to break it down like how he taught it to me.”

After rushing for 381 yards total in his first three seasons, Mathis broke out for 562 yards and five touchdowns in 2022, including a 163-yard, two-touchdown performance against Baylor.

The first running back to break out last season was then-freshman CJ Donaldson. In his first career game, the converted tight end ran for 125 yards and a touchdown against Pittsburgh. He had three more 100-yard days and scored eight total touchdowns before an injury cut his season short in October.

Donaldson has been limited this spring while recovering, but his skill set figures to fit right into the versatility WVU wants to use.

“CJ has a tight end background, so we’re going to use him in ways; he’s versatile,” Mathis said. “Really all of us, we’re going to maneuver around, we’re going to try and learn the whole playbook so we can all be on the field.”

When Donaldson went down last season, that opened the door for other players to step into the spotlight. The first to do so was junior Justin Johnson. He ran for a career-high 83 yards against Virginia Tech and, while never reaching 100 in a single game, finished the year with 430.

Just like he did last year, Johnson isn’t in a position where he’ll carry the ball upwards of 20 times a game and he knows he’ll have to make the most of what he gets.

“The room is very competitive,” Johnson said. “Every practice, we’re trying to one-up each other. But we’re very close off the field so that’s a big part as well.

“We’re all going to get our opportunities and we just have to make the most of them.”
However, having formations with two running backs means there could potentially be double the opportunities, and double the headache for opposing defenses.

“Teams are going to plan for one of two of us, but if we throw a different personnel in and they’re not ready for that, it’s a whole different style they have to adjust to,” Johnson said. “It plays in our favor.”

The last running back to break out in 2022 was redshirt-sophomore Jaylen Anderson. With Donaldson out and Mathis at well less than 100% late in the year, Anderson ran for 69 yards in WVU’s penultimate game and followed that up with 155 yards and two touchdowns in the season finale at Oklahoma State.

“We all just really want to see each other shine,” Anderson said Thursday. “It’s never really been about one person. We just want to see each other do good. We feed off of each other’s success.

“As competitive as it gets, no matter what we always try to help each other and build off each other. It can get very competitive sometimes, but at the end of the day we’re brothers and we’re just trying to get better together.”

Like Donaldson, Anderson has a pass-catching background, having played wide receiver in high school, that he will get to show off in the team’s new scheme this year.

“I get to show off more of what I can do with and without the ball,” he said. “Hopefully mixing it up will make us a better team, a better offense.”

As if there aren’t already enough mouths to feed, adding to the running back group in 2023 will be true freshmen DJ Oliver and Jahiem White, who enrolled early and is on campus this spring. White, who ran for 1,900 yards and 37 touchdowns as a senior at William Penn High School in Pa., has impressed early on as a speedster and yet another option for the Mountaineers to use in the backfield.

The question remains, however, if there are enough touches to go around to keep four, or even five, running backs happy throughout the season.

“It’ll work,” Mathis said definitively. “You just have to know how to maneuver with it. I think it’s going to work pretty well, especially with the type of personality everybody has in the running back room.

“If we’ve got the right plays at the right time, you might not need 20 carries.”

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