LAWRENCE — CJ Donaldson hadn’t played a down of college football ahead of West Virginia’s season opener last week against Pittsburgh.
Then Donaldson, who’s listed as a tight end on the Mountaineers’ roster but at running back on the depth chart, rushed for 125 yards on seven carries with a touchdown. Then Donaldson, whose rushing prowess included a 44-yard scamper that set up West Virginia’s first score of the day, also blocked a punt against the Panthers. Although the Mountaineers fell short of a win in that rivalry matchup, the Big 12 Conference honored the freshman as its newcomer of the week.
►RELATED:Kansas football coach Lance Leipold’s reaction to extension showcases focus on the present
But if Donaldson’s performance came as a surprise to Pittsburgh in any way, it shouldn’t for Kansas on Saturday when the Jayhawks face West Virginia (0-1) in each side’s Big 12 opener. The film is there on the 6-foot-2, 240-pound talent. Against a team that also boasts junior quarterback JT Daniels and an attack that’s capable of being balanced, capitalizing on that knowledge to make the Mountaineers as one-dimensional as possible is key for Kansas (1-0).
“(Donaldson)’s a big guy, strong,” Jayhawks defensive coordinator Brian Borland said. “He’s a good, straight-ahead, hard runner and he ran through some tackles and had some nice creases to run through. So, I think … they’re just kind of probably finding out what they have in that guy and trying to find good ways to use him. So, I don’t know what their plans will be for him this week. I’m sure he’s going to carry the ball … I don’t know what else he’s going to do. I’m sure they’re trying to develop some things for him because they probably realize he’s a really good player.”
Maybe inviting a talent like Daniels to throw the ball isn’t necessarily wise, Borland allowed about the former 247Sports Composite five-star talent whose past stops in college were at USC and Georgia. But Borland added if a team can run it on them that team can run it and throw it on them. So, they start with the aim of being firm against the run in order to open up other possibilities within their defense when it’s time to defend the pass.
Donaldson, a former 247Sports Composite three-start recruit, wasn’t the one who received the bulk of the carries for West Virginia against Pittsburgh. Redshirt sophomore running back Tony Mathis Jr. had more than twice as many carries. But Donaldson, who played tight end and wide receiver in high school and signed with the Mountaineers as an athlete, produced the most on the ground.
►RELATED:Kansas defensive end Lonnie Phelps Jr.’s mid-game motivations from his dad date back years
West Virginia has a new offensive coordinator this season in Graham Harrell who could try to dice up Kansas differently than the Mountaineers attempted to last season. But Harrell might just try to use Donaldson and Mathis to accomplish what Mathis helped West Virginia do on his own in 2021. That game saw the Mountaineers rush for 261 yards on 50 carries against a Jayhawks defense that allowed the most rushing yards and touchdowns in the Big 12 last season.
“(Donaldson)’s a special athlete that, obviously, they did a great job evaluating and getting him there,” Jayhawks head coach Lance Leipold said. “And I’m sure they’ll continue to find ways to utilize him. And that’s going to be a challenge for us any time you have somebody with that type of athletic ability.”
Kansas sophomore cornerback Cobee Bryant noticed Donaldson while studying film, but that’s not where Bryant’s focus is. He anticipates West Virginia trying to throw a lot of fade routes. His mind is on defending the pass.
Kansas junior linebacker Taiwan Berryhill and super-senior defensive lineman Caleb Sampson, though, are likely to be much more heavily relied upon in defending the run. Berryhill, impressed by how big Donaldson is for a freshman, highlighted Donaldson’s size. Sampson acknowledged the Jayhawks will have to be on their “p’s and q’s” with how shifty of a running back Donaldson can be.
“(Donaldson)’s a good-looking, well-put-together kid — at least on film,” Borland said. “And I think his running style and his success kind of showed it. So, we’ll try to hit him hard and get him on the ground when they give him the ball.”
Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas Athletics at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.