Ohio State has bona fide competitions for starter at almost every position on offense during spring football practice.
J.K. Dobbins knows he is an exception. With Mike Weber gone, Dobbins is being counted on to be a workhorse running back. But he is far from complacent — after a superb freshman season, Dobbins acknowledges that he regressed last season and is hungry to rebound as a junior.
After averaging 7.2 yards per carry in 2017, Dobbins’ average dipped to 4.6 in 2018.
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Dobbins could have offered several explanations for the slide: With Dwayne Haskins Jr., Ohio State became a pass-oriented offense; Haskins’ limited mobility allowed defenses to cheat toward the running back on read-option plays; the offensive line didn’t always block consistently.
Dobbins would have none of it. He put it all on himself.
“I’m not going to make any excuses,” he said. “It was me. I didn’t have the year I needed to have.”
In 2017, Dobbins was thrust into the primary role because Weber, the incumbent, was slowed most of the season by a hamstring injury. Dobbins ran for 181 yards against Indiana in the opener and never looked back, finishing with 1,403 yards.
With Weber healthy last year, the backs shared time. Dobbins had some excellent games — 121 yards against TCU, 163 against Nebraska, 203 against Maryland — but those were exceptions. In OSU’s final three games, Dobbins gained only 138 yards and averaged 3.8 yards per carry. He finished with 1,053 yards, though he did run for 10 touchdowns and had two more on catches.
Coach Ryan Day believes that sharing duties caused Dobbins to try for big gains instead of taking what was available and fighting for more. As he struggled, those big carries he sought proved elusive. His longest carry was for 42 yards, and he didn’t have another longer than 28.
Dobbins agreed with Day that he pressed.
“I’ve never switched drives back to back” as he did last season, he said. “I wasn’t used to that. You don’t know when you’re going to get your (next) carry.”
Dobbins now relishes the idea of being the undisputed lead runner, knowing he can find his rhythm within games because he is likely to play on most possessions.
“Of course, I loved having Mike here. It kept me fresher,” he said. “But I think playing more, being on the field more, you get in a groove.”
Before spring practice, Day said he and Dobbins discussed his role.
“He’s the back now,” Day said. “He’s going to have to make those 5- or 6-yard hard runs where he’s going to finish them for 7 or 8 and maybe not try to hit that home run. His carries are going to be up. He’s going to be the lead dog, and we have to find some depth there.”
Behind Dobbins, the Buckeyes are talented but young. Master Teague got only 17 carries last year as a freshman. Demario McCall has shown explosiveness, but he is more of an H-back than pure running back. Freshman Marcus Crowley also will get his chances.
But the plan is to ride Dobbins as much as possible.
“Whatever the team needs,” he said. “If you give me the ball 30 times, I’m going to find a way to be all right.”
Dobbins’ freshman season showed he has the ability to join the ranks of OSU’s list of star running backs. He will settle for nothing less.
“I want to be legendary,” Dobbins said. “I want to be like Ezekiel Elliot and Archie Griffin and guys like that — write my name in stone.”