Bryant Shirreffs admitted that he was unaware that the receiver he targeted more than any other in Sunday's wild affair against East Carolina was a non-scholarship player. What Shirreffs does realize is that good things happen when he throws the ball in the direction of the redshirt freshman from Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Donaldson had 10 passes thrown in his direction and he came down with six of them for 108 yards and two touchdowns.
His first reception went for a 45-yard touchdown and it was was Donaldson's first catch in a game since recording his fifth 100-yard receiving game in a 27-13 loss to Northwestern Lehigh in his final game at Salisbury Township in 2015.
Donaldson went from being on the kickoff coverage unit in the season opener to playing on most of the special teams units in the second game. The plan was to have Donaldson split time with star receiver Hergy Mayala but when Mayala went down with an ankle injury on UConn's second offensive play, Donaldson's playing time took a significant jump.
"I came in last year with the previous staff and with this staff I kind of earned a role as a backup to Hergy," Donaldson said. "When Hergy ended up going down, we kind of go by that motto that the next guy has to hop in and do the same role as the guy in front of him if not better.
"Everything fell into place (on the first touchdown), everybody on the field did exactly what they needed to do. The receivers ran their routes perfectly, the guys (were) downfield blocking for me, I caught the ball looked up and the red sea was parted. I took off and it was so surreal."
There are seven wide receivers on UConn's current roster who caught passes in the spring game and Donaldson wasn't among them so heading into the season, he was a bit of an afterthought among the receivers.
"He is a guy who listens and understands what is being said, he worked to get his opportunity," UConn coach Randy Edsall said. "He was a guy that as I continued to see in practice, see him do things. He came from really being a guy that you didn't think was going to play much in any phase to where we put him in because we saw what he was doing and how hard he was working at everything else. We put him on kickoff return and he aced that. By doing what he did on kickoff return early on, we incorporated him into more special teams because of doing the job and getting the job done."
With Donaldson finishing with 106 receiving yards and true freshman Kevin Mensah rushing for 107 yards, they became the first set of freshmen on an FBS team to record a 100-yard rushing and receiving game this season. Oklahoma is the only other FBS program to accomplish the feat at all as Trey Sermon ran for 148 yards against Baylor while CeeDee Lamb had 131 receiving yards against Tulane but UConn is the only team that had it take place in the same game. The UConn media guide lists all the 100-yard rushing and receiving games dating back to 1970 and I counted 48 occasions when the Huskies had a 100-yard rusher and receiver in the same game but not one time when it was a pair of freshmen accomplishing the feat.
"They put a lot of confidence in me, they made me get into my comfort zone," Mensah said. "Coach (Richardson), Arkeel (Newsome), Nate (Hopkins), JT (Jason Thompson) they told me a lot and to just go out there and run."
Mensah was a late add to the group of incoming freshmen but Donaldson's story might be even more remarkable.
He heard from some FBS programs but none were willing to offer him a scholarship. UConn looked at him as a recruited walk-on where he will get the chance to earn a scholarship.
"That kind of helps drive me because every day I have do the best for me and my family," Donaldson said. "It really drives me to push myself. Some (I-)AA schools, a couple FBS schools (recruited him). The previous staff was the only one at this level that gave me a chance, I am so blessed they gave me that opportunity."
We should have an update on Mayala's condition at tomorrow's press conference. Mensah rolled up on Mayala's legs on his first carry of the game knocking Mayala out of the game one play after he broke wide open when ECU defensive back Marcus Holton fell down. However, Shirreffs overthrew Mayala.. If it is a high-ankle sprain as Edsall thought it was after the game, Mayala could miss Saturday's game at SMU meaning another busy day for Donaldson. Regardless of Mayala's status, it certainly looks as if Donaldson will be a key part of the offense moving forward.
"He is a great example to the other players on the team who haven't gotten the opportunity yet, if they want that opportunity all they have to do is look at that guy and how he earned that opportunity," Edsall said. "When he earned that opportunity, he took advantage of it."