They spent three years vying for the designation as the best running back in college football.


The competition unfolded almost as soon as they arrived at their schools as freshmen in 2017.


Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins pitted against Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor.


Most often, Taylor garnered the higher recognition. He received the Doak Walker Award, the most prestigious honor for a running back, during each of the past two seasons (Dobbins was a finalist in 2019) and finished sixth in career rushing yards in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.


This week, their measuring contest will extend to the NFL draft.


Among the 99 underclassmen who filed for early entry, Dobbins and Taylor are jockeying to be the first running back selected, possibly in the first round.


The race is a serious one for Dobbins.


"I know from talking to my buddies at Ohio State that he does not see himself as anything other than the top running back in this class," NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. "That's kind of how competitive he is."


Others in the draft could challenge the former Big Ten running backs for the top spot, including two from the Southeastern Conference: LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Georgia’s D'Andre Swift.


Past competitions between Dobbins and Taylor present their slot in the draft as an intriguing subplot leading into the main event of the NFL’s offseason calendar.


When they spoke with reporters at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February, neither Dobbins nor Taylor said they considered their counterpart a rival.


For one, they were never on the field together.


"I don't really see it as a rivalry because he's not on defense," Dobbins said. "So I'm not necessarily going against him. But if there's a rivalry, I think I won the better of that because we beat them every time we played them."


The recent series between Ohio State and Wisconsin does favor Dobbins’ side.


In the past three seasons, the Buckeyes won all three matchups, including twice last fall as they prevailed in the Big Ten championship game.


During those three meetings, Dobbins totaled 509 rushing yards and three touchdowns; Taylor combined for 241 rushing yards and a touchdown.


Most of Taylor's rushing yards came last fall when he had 148 in the conference championship game, helping the Badgers build a two-touchdown halftime lead before Ohio State ultimately prevailed 34-21.


Taylor considered last season the height of the competition between them.


It was easily Dobbins’ best stretch, as he became the first Ohio State running back to top 2,000 rushing yards in a season.


They each finished with 2,003 rushing yards.


"This past year, J.K. shot through the roof if you look at his ability to make people miss in the open field," Taylor said. "He was able to take a couple the distance. I mean, he's a tough runner, too. I don't think people talk enough about how he finishes his runs. He's a real physical runner."


Most often, the running backs were benchmarks for each other, leaving them with a challenge of outdoing the other.


"If you're a running back, you love watching other running backs make plays," Taylor said. "Because you're like, ‘Wow, I want to make that play,’ or, ‘I can make that play too.’"


Dobbins, in particular, often sought to cultivate a competitive edge.


"I always feel like I have something to prove," he said. "Even when I ran for 2,000 yards, I felt I had to prove a little more."


Both offer various skill sets to NFL teams.


Measuring 5 feet 10 and almost 230 pounds, Taylor is the biggest of the top running back prospects in the draft, but also has a good burst of speed. He ran the 40-yard dash at the combine in 4.39 seconds, the fastest time among running backs.


Dobbins did not participate in on-field drills while recovering from a high ankle sprain suffered during the Buckeyes’ loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinals.


Jeremiah, the draft analyst, considers Dobbins a balanced, compact runner, measuring 5-9 and 209 pounds.


If Dobbins is picked ahead of Taylor, it may be because of his well-rounded attributes, which his former coach valued.


"He can do a lot of things," Buckeyes coach Ryan Day said. "He can run zone scheme, he can run a gap scheme, he can protect, he can run (passing) routes. I think he's shown he can do all those things, and he has a great work ethic.


"You combine all those things, it's a pretty attractive draft pick."


jkaufman@dispatch.com


@joeyrkaufman