Running back Mike Weber injured his left hamstring four weeks ago and still isn’t participating in contact drills.
A year ago, that might have caused panic at Ohio State.
For one thing, Weber and running backs coach Tony Alford believe that he will be ready for the opener Aug. 31 at Indiana.
But the calm regarding the running backs extends beyond optimism about Weber’s health. Unlike a year ago, the Buckeyes feel good about their options even if the Big Ten’s reigning freshman of the year needs more time to heal.
In 2016, Weber had little competition even though he was just a redshirt freshman. Senior Bri’onte Dunn had been dismissed from the team, and freshmen Demario McCall and Antonio Williams weren’t ready for major duty.
Now, McCall has added needed weight (from 5 feet 9, 182 pounds to 195), though he is spending more time as a hybrid than pure running back. He added that he and K.J. Hill are the top punt returners. Williams has also taken major strides, Alford said.
But the biggest revelation has been freshman J.K. Dobbins. Alford only added to the buzz about Dobbins with gushing praise.
“I would say that in my 22 years, this guy has picked it up faster than anybody I’ve ever been around,” Alford said. “He understands the offense (and learned) the nuances of it very, very quickly. He goes so hard in everything he does, which is part of the culture of this program.”
Dobbins’ rise is even more remarkable considering that he missed all but one play of his senior season at La Grange (Texas) High School because of a broken leg. But he is already the clear No. 2 behind Weber.
“He’s a fast-twitch guy,” Alford said. “He has a second gear that we’re looking for, and he’s tough. He’ll stick his nose in there and compete. He’s a joy to coach.”
As impressive as Dobbins has been, Alford indicated that Weber is still the starter. The Detroit native ran for 1,096 yards last season (6.0 per carry) to become only the third Buckeyes freshman to run for 1,000 yards. But he totaled only 50 yards combined against Michigan and Clemson.
“I didn’t play my best at the end of the year,” Weber said. “My focus is to finish strong this year.”
Asked if he had any individual goals, Weber smiled sheepishly before sharing one of them.
“Two thousand yards,” he said.
Is that realistic?
“I believe so,” he said.
If he had said something like that early in his career, it might have been met with eye-rolls. But by all accounts, he is far more mature than when he stepped on campus.
“Opposite ends of the spectrum,” Alford said.
That includes embracing his status as the leader of his unit.
“He’s been awesome,” Alford said. “He has been hobbled a little bit, but his attention to detail has been at the top of the charts. I don’t know what else I could ask of him.”
In a way, Weber didn’t have a choice. The development of the rest of the running backs has demanded that everyone raise their game.
“Remember, when we started this last year, no one in our room had ever taken a college snap,” Alford said. “Now they’ve played a little bit. Antonio has been around. Demario, who is in the (running backs) room and out of the room, has been around, so he can provide viable reps.
“Obviously, Mike has played a lot of football now. And then you have a highly competitive and smart and explosive individual in J.K., who picks things up very quickly. The competition has been ramped up, which has helped the room get better.”