Student of the game
A natural drive compels J.K. Dobbins to be better with each carry, each game
The coaches were gathered in an office at La Grange High School in southeast Texas in the spring of 2014 when the highlight appeared on the screen.
They wanted to make sure the visiting college recruiter watched a clip of a lightning-quick running back named J.K. Dobbins. Late in a state playoff loss the previous December, Dobbins took a handoff on a jet sweep and burst 65 yards toward the end zone for a touchdown.
Bigger defenders couldn’t catch him.
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Bill Best, then an assistant at Stephen F. Austin University, took note of his name and pondered his future.
“This kid is going to win the Heisman,” Best said.
Will Kates, the offensive coordinator for La Grange, recently recalled the pronouncement. It didn’t seem like an exaggeration. Kates looked at Best and admitted it was possible.
Dobbins was only a freshman but teemed with potential.
“People knew this kid had something special that you just don’t see,” Kates said.
When a recruiter from Houston visited a year earlier, he watched Dobbins, then in the eighth grade, run routes with older high school varsity players after school, and left similarly dazzled.
“He moves better than a lot of kids on our campus right now,” La Grange coach Matt Kates recalled him cracking.
Dobbins never slowed down. He ran for 2,000 yards as a sophomore and a junior. College scholarship offers flooded his doorstep. In his first two seasons in Ohio State’s backfield, he surpassed 1,000 yards.
Each step, though, felt unsatisfying.
Early in preseason training camp last month, Dobbins called his sophomore season with the Buckeyes a failure. He gained over 1,000 yards but was a less efficient runner. After the tough critique, he explained he had his sights set on becoming the best running back in the nation.
“Not that 1,000 yards isn't a great barometer,” Matt Kates said, “but that's not his barometer.”
Those closest to Dobbins, from his former coaches in his native small Texas town to his mother, paint the picture of a driven tailback for the Buckeyes.
There’s much promise to fulfill.
• • •
Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford meets with Dobbins at least twice a week in his office. Their first conversation occurs Sunday, about an hour before the entire team convenes. Alford and Dobbins touch on various topics.
Usually the day after a game, they review his most recent performance, discuss the next opponent and consider approaches to leadership. Dobbins is a team captain for the first time this fall.
Their talk couldn’t wait long after the season opener against Florida Atlantic on Labor Day weekend, when Dobbins was held to less than 100 yards and fumbled.
They spoke on the phone Saturday night, hours after the game.
“He was (upset), as he should be and as we all were,” Alford said. “We weren’t happy about it.”
Everyone envisioned a bigger start. In the months leading up to the season, coach Ryan Day urged Dobbins to become the Buckeyes’ featured back and serve as the focal point of the offense during the early stretch.
His reasoning was sound. Dobbins no longer had to split carries with Mike Weber, who left early for the NFL, but the Buckeyes had a first-time starting quarterback with transfer Justin Fields, making the ground game all the more important.
“He keeps pushing me,” Dobbins said. “All the coaches push me.”
The bounce-back arrived quickly. Dobbins rushed for 334 yards and three touchdowns in the following weeks against Cincinnati and Indiana, both blowout victories.
Entering a game Saturday against Miami University, Dobbins ranks fourth in the nation in rushing and has shifted the focus of last season’s record-setting passing offense. Ohio State has rushed 62 percent of the time, more often than in the previous two seasons with Day as the play-caller.
Throughout the offseason, Dobbins, 5 feet 10, had readied for a bigger workload as a junior. He trimmed his body fat from 12 percent to 8 percent while he maintained his frame, weighing about 215 pounds.
The change came with a restructured diet. At one summer barbecue, Alford asked Dobbins if he would like one of the grilled hamburgers. Dobbins told him he was eating grilled chicken instead.
“That’s how committed he was,” Alford said.
It wasn’t the first time Alford noticed an unwavering focus. In one of his earliest conversations with Dobbins as a high school recruit, the teenager told him about avoiding a friend.
“He said, ‘I'm trying to do X, Y and Z, and if they're not 100 percent with me in my quest to accomplish my goals, they're not with me at all. You're either 100 percent in or 100 percent out,’” Alford recalled. “I thought that was a real interesting thing to hear from a 16-, 17-year-old kid.”
• • •
Dobbins was often serious about football. He watched games intently as a toddler on weekends, mimicking players’ movements on the screen as he leapt from one couch to the next.
When he played for pee-wee teams, he directed players to their positions on the field.
“At first, I thought maybe it was him being bossy,” said his mother, Mya Grounds, “but it was him studying his plays. He knows where everybody is supposed to be.”
These were some of Grounds’ earliest memories of her son. He hardly changed, building resolve in the years before he was a premier high school recruit and college running back.
She noticed his focus while he ran track in middle school. When Dobbins was dissatisfied, he spent extra time practicing sprints and attached a parachute to himself for resistance training.
National meets provided tough challenges.
“It taught him he must outwork himself,” Grounds said.
While he followed in the footsteps of his late father, Lawrence Dobbins, who was also a gifted football player and state champion sprinter at La Grange, J.K.'s drive mirrors his mother’s determination.
Grounds was 18 when Dobbins was born. Throughout his childhood, she commuted more than an hour one way to Austin, where she worked as an accountant.
“I didn't give him that pity party,” Grounds said. “It was always, ‘OK, J.K., you have to find another way to do what you need to do.’”
Much of Dobbins’ goals centered on football stardom, a path pointed toward the NFL.
His high school coaches recalled a state playoff game during his sophomore year in late 2014. With freezing temperatures, most of the La Grange players wore sleeves underneath jerseys. But Dobbins was sleeveless. When they asked why, he told them NFL cities like Green Bay would be cold, too.
They found it amusing, but revealing.
“He had a foresight of what he was going to do,” said Matt Kates, the coach for the Leopards, “and by god, it looks like he's going to do it.”