MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (WV News) — He came out of nowhere, really, a three-star prospect as a tight end at Gulliver Prep, which is located south of Miami.
People knew of him, but CJ Donaldson wasn't being seen as a superstar in waiting. ESPN ranked him No. 152 nationally at tight end and as the No. 147 player in Florida, but they didn't see him the way Neal Brown and West Virginia saw him.
Brown started him in the tight end room, but there was a need for a running back and he was given the opportunity there.
Now this is an exaggeration for effect, but there once was a guy named Jim Brown who made a name for himself and he was 6-foot-2 and 231 pounds and an amazing athlete, not at all unlike the 6-2, 235-pound Donaldson.
Donaldson, you see, is almost offended when you refer to him as a running back.
"I'll never classify myself as a running back. I'm an athlete. Put me anywhere and I can get the job done," he says.
Do not confuse confidence with cockiness, for Donaldson is ego driven. In fact, he sounds like he's almost satisfied being a face in the crowd, although he understands that is something of the past now.
He gained a modicum of fame last year and it's expected there will be a lot more in the future.
"It definitely happens more, but I have an unfamiliar face," he answered when asked if he was getting used to being recognized these days. "You have to actually see me to know who I am. I hide a little bit, but it's cool. It's something everyone wishes for, like I'm a collegiate running back. You know, it's something I've wished for since I was a little kid."
Credit must be given where due and as much as Neal Brown has been criticized, he may be remembered in the end mostly for converting Donaldson to running back.
He proved to be special from the first moment he handled the ball. WVU was engaged in its 2022 opener, a heated Backyard Brawl renewal with Pitt. Upon entering the game, he was handed the ball and his first carry was a bruising run through potential tacklers on which he gained 44 yards.
One might expect that to be the highlight of his season, if not his life, but he doesn't see that exploding star in such a light.
Instead, his high point was also his low point, coming midway through the season in the game in which he was injured.
He was being noticed as a budding star as he came off the bench game after game to lead the Mountaineers in rushing when the TCU game came along. The Horned Frogs were supposed to be a tailender in the Big 12 but surprised everyone by playing in the national semifinal against Georgia.
"My high point was my last game of the season," Donaldson said. .
That was the game in which his season ended just as he was getting to build a national reputation, the TCU game when he broke his ankle and lost the second half of his freshman year.
At the time he had 19 carries for 104 yards and two touchdowns.
"That was my first start of the season and I was real excited," he noted. "I finally got a start in college football and you probably saw, in the first half of that game I was quite explosive."
He had carried the ball 19 times for 108 yards and two touchdowns.
"When I got into the second half, I sat out a little bit because I had a shoulder injury. I put on a brace," he recalled.
He thought it was a problem, but was going to play.
"Then I broke my ankle," he said. "That was the low point in the season."
He lay on the ground, teammates around him. The man who carried the mail for WVU would make no more deliveries in 2022, finishing the year with 526 yards on 87 carries and 8 rushing touchdowns.
That's a healthy 6.6 yards per attempt.
"It was definitely disappointing but it definitely taught me a lesson," he said. "The way I look at things is something is either a lesson or a blessing."
It's lonely on the sidelines, watching teammates play. It's lonely doing rehab, sometimes lonely and painful. And to have your leg essentially in a sling, bent at the knee and on a skateboard like device to get around makes you start thinking about yourself.
As big and as strong as Donaldson was, he was still just a freshman and beginning to realize how important his body was to him.
"Coach Brown is definitely hard on me. He gives me the harsh truth, which I like because tough love is something that you need," Donaldson said. "He was point blank on it, like 'CJ, you got to get in better shape.' I worked hard with Coach Mike [Joseph, WVU strength and conditioning coach}. Even though it was a pain, I knew it would work out at the end.
"My body has changed tremendously from last year, body-fat wise," he said. "Me being able to control my body weight is important. Last year my eating habits were terrible, but now I eat way better and take care of my body.
"My body is my business," he added. "You see things going on in the NFL, so you definitely have to take care of your body. If you don't have a body, you don't have value."
Now he enters his second season healthy and more fit, a student of the game with offensive coordinator/running back coach Chad Scott his mentor.
"He reminds me to still have the freshman mentality; to go out there and play loose, have fun. It's like see a little, see a lot, don't try to overthink things. Play your game. Everybody has their own unique ways of playing running back. You have your own style so stick to your own unique style of how to play running back," he said.
Donaldson's style is as a punishing runner.
"In high school was a bruiser as a receiver. What makes me stand out from others is I know I got to get my shoulders square. That's a hard tackle. I can break tackles," he explained.
"Coach Scott is always telling me I'm scary when I keep my shoulders square. He tells me, don't play like a robot. When in doubt, get downhill. That's the X factor. If your shoulders are square, people have to make big decisions or do I want to tackle you every play."
He often notices that sometimes defensive backs and linebackers don't want any part of him.
"You can definitely tell. When they try to tackle like from the side, they don't want to be tackling you every play. That's a tough tackle. That's 235 pounds coming at you every play."