As freshman J.K. Dobbins hit the middle of the line, made a couple of jump cuts left and then raced off to a 35-yard gain during his debut for Ohio State on Thursday night in a 49-21 win at Indiana, 12 high school coaches in a watch party in La Grange, Texas, cheered.
“I never thought 12 grown men from the middle of Texas would be rooting for the Scarlet and Gray that hard, but it feels like our own home team watching him out there getting after it,” La Grange coach Matt Kates said Friday.
That’s the reaction Dobbins wanted to generate in his hometown, among the many communities impacted by the torrential rain and flooding generated by Hurricane Harvey over the past week. The Colorado River, which runs past the west and south sides of La Grange, spilled over its banks in a way not seen in at least 100 years, swamping much of that part of the town.
“I thought of it as motivation for me because I’m probably the only positive thing going on in my town right now,” said Dobbins, who has family in the town, though his mother lives in lesser-impacted Weimar. “I just thought of it as bringing my city up. That’s why I came out here and played as hard as I could.”
He became just the second freshman running back to start a season opener for Ohio State, along with Maurice Clarett on the 2002 national championship team. By night’s end, Dobbins, taking the place of returning starter Mike Weber — out because of a sprained hamstring — had 181 yards rushing, six more than Clarett managed against Texas Tech in 2002.
Dobbins also made the desired effect on his hometown, Kates said.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt about it, just bringing a smile to people’s faces around here is a positive thing, with what we’re going through,” the coach said.
For example, three players on the current La Grange team and one of the assistant coaches lost their homes in the flood.
“It’s just been rough for a lot of people, and everybody is trying to help folks get through it,” Kates said.
Watching the game was a needed diversion, he said, and in some ways a blast from the past for Kates and his staff. They weren’t surprised to see Dobbins get rolling.
“We all felt like that was going to happen, but it was fun for the rest of the world to see what we already know,” Kates said.
The rest of the world could be pardoned for forgetting, because after rushing for 5,149 rushing yards and 74 touchdowns from his freshman through junior years at La Grange, Dobbins suffered a broken ankle on the first play last year that kept him out the rest of the season.
Dobbins rebounded in a big way Thursday night.
“I know it sounds crazy, but I’m not surprised because he’s a once-in-a-lifetime type kid,” Kates said. “Maybe not even that, because most high school coaches probably never get to say they had the best running back in the nation, if not top two or three, at some point in their career.
“Everybody saw it. He can do anything you need. He can run inside, he can run outside, he’s got the vision to spin off blockers, he’s got that jump cut. It’s kind of the whole package wrapped in one. Something we’ve known and had been spoiled by around here the last three or four years, and now we couldn’t be more proud of him.”
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