COLUMBUS – After a brilliant freshman season in 2017, some people thought J.K. Dobbins might make records fall last season.
Instead, his production fell. But the Ohio State running back says he intends to make up for it this season and is driven by the disappointment he felt in his performance last season.
“To me, it was a failure,” Dobbins said about his 2018 season on the day Ohio State opened preseason practice.
To most people, rushing for more than 1,000 yards for a second straight season would not be a failure.
Dobbins was the Buckeyes’ leading rusher with 1,053 yards, but he pushes back against any suggestion last season was a good one for him.
His opinion is all about expectations. As a freshman Dobbins rushed for 1,403 yards, had six games of 100 yards or more and averaged 7.2 yards a carry.
Last season his rushing total dipped by nearly 400 yards, his 100-yard games were cut in half and he averaged only 4.6 yards a carry.
After his big freshman season, betting site Bovada listed him as one of the top two contenders for the Heisman Trophy in January 2018 and another site followed suit in April.
But when everything was sorted out, he was only second-team All-Big Ten, as selected by the coaches, and honorable mention All-Big Ten, as selected by the media.
“I rushed for a thousand yards, but I feel like I can rush for way more yards this year. Last year was a failure to me. You’ll see more pop, more explosion, more everything this year,” Dobbins said.
“I feel like everything is coming together at the right time. I feel like I’m the best running back in the nation, and I want to prove that.”
Dobbins should get more chances to back up that claim than he had last season, when he and Mike Weber shared the running back position and quarterback Dwayne Haskins, now with the Washington Redskins, threw for 4,831 yards and 50 touchdowns.
Dobbins got the chance to be the No. 1 running back as a freshman when Weber suffered a preseason hamstring injury, which limited him to seven carries in OSU’s first three games.
Dobbins rushed for 181 yards in the 2017 opener against Indiana and remained the first option in the ground game most of the season.
But last year Weber was healthy again and rushed for 954 yards before passing up his final year of eligibility this season to go to the NFL.
“There were benefits to sharing carries but knowing I’ll get more carries than in my first two years is kind of a good feeling because I’ll be able to get into a rhythm and stuff like that. I think that helps a lot,” Dobbins said.
During spring practice he had a slightly different view of sharing carries. He said it didn’t bother him, but added, “You approach the game differently. It changed our games.”
Running backs coach Tony Alford said from his vantage point he saw Dobbins trying too hard to make big plays last season.
“He was always trying to make this huge play because we were rotating backs. His thing was, ‘If I’m only going to get so many reps (repetitions), every chance I get I’m going to try to blow the doors wide open.’
“That’s not how the game works. You’ve got to stay with the design of the play. So there was some frustration in there. There are a bunch of things that play into that, the mental aspect of it, and I could have done a better job of helping him navigate those waters,” Alford said.
“Our whole thing this offseason and really toward the end of last season was get back to what you were. We need to get back to this, and we’re going to get back to this.”
Dobbins said, “It looked way better freshman year, and it felt better. Last year did not feel as good, and I think I can do much better. I didn’t make defenses fear me as I should. I want to have that responsibility of the team leaning on me in a time of need.”
Ohio State is expected to need Dobbins in a way it didn’t last season. At quarterback, former five-star recruit Justin Fields, a transfer from Georgia who is expected to start, will be in his first season in the Buckeyes program. And, like Fields, none of the expected backup quartebacks have played in a game at OSU.
Also, the backup running backs are short on experience. Coach Ryan Day listed finding a back-up running back as one of the goals in preseason practice.
“J.K. can’t handle all that by himself, he’s going to need help,” Day said. “We have a lot of guys battling for it but we do not have a legitimate back-up running back right now.”
One option would be speedy, though a little on the small side fourth-year junior Demario McCall. Another would be redshirt freshman Master Teague, a former four-star recruit who carried the ball 17 times for 106 yards last season.
After that, it’s two true freshmen – Marcus Crowley, ranked the No. 26 running back in the county in the 2019 recruiting class, and Steele Chambers.
Day said there are several things any of those four need to do to become Dobbins’ back-up.
“First off, they’ve got to take care of the ball. “That’s No. 1. Ball security is critical for us. We have to secure the ball. We have to block. They have to do good job in protection, picking up blitzes,” he said.