Thanks to lingering hamstring issues for starter Mike Weber, freshman running back J.K. Dobbins got the start for the Buckeyes on Thursday night in Bloomington, Indiana. In his first career game, Dobbins set an Ohio State freshman-debut record with 181 yards rushing.
He kept the Buckeye offense going in the first half when the passing game was struggling. He then provided a nice complement in the second half when everything else started clicking as well.
Dobbins became just the sixth true freshman to ever start in his first game for Ohio State, joining quarterback Art Schlichter in 1978, left tackle Orlando Pace in 1995, linebacker Andy Katzenmoyer in 1996, running back Maurice Clarett in 2002, and left guard Michael Jordan in 2016.
He bested Clarett’s debut rushing total by six yards, which had been the previous record.
All in all, not a bad debut for a backup. And absolutely nobody on the Ohio State sideline was surprised.
“Oh man, I’ve been waiting since the beginning of camp because he can run the ball,” said right guard Branden Bowen. “It was great to see him succeed and it was great blocking for him. It’s amazing blocking for him because you know that if he gets the smallest crease, he’s gone. And he’s going to take full advantage of every hole we open and he’s going to score some touchdowns this year.”
The only concern for the coaches had nothing to do with talent or ability.
“Well, he had made a lot of plays against our defense, and our defense is really good and it’s a really good run defense,” offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said after the game. “We were just worried that he was a freshman and would be too amped up. He’s a fired-up kid, an emotional kid. Just to keep him calm and how to get him going but not let him hyperventilate early.
“Tony (Alford) talks about that, and you can laugh, but until you’re out there doing it and it’s for real and when you’ve got the ball and they’re all chasing after you, it’s prime time, it’s a great atmosphere, that’s a lot for a kid and he handled it like a champ. He’s got a great future. But it’s nice to see him take the driving range to the golf course when he came in here today and played well.”
Dobbins showed toughness consistently running into a line of scrimmage that was waiting for him. There were times when he looked to be all sewn up, only to split the seams and zip into the secondary like he was late for a meeting.
It was a dazzling debut that lived up to the hype. Dobbins had time to prepare himself, however, as was told midweek that he would be getting the start. Considering everything else that has been going on over the last week or so, getting the start probably didn’t seem so daunting.
The Harvey Aftermath
Dobbins is from La Grange, Texas, which sits on a bend in the Colorado River, about 100 miles west of Houston. While his family made it through Hurrican Harvey’s path of destruction unscathed, others in La Grange weren’t so fortunate, as the city saw its worst flooding in a century.
The river rose to 54 feet in La Grange, which was more than twice its flood stage. Tens of millions of dollars in damage was done to homes and businesses in the area. Houses had water five and six feet high in some spots.
“It wasn’t that strange,” Dobbins said of getting the start with everything else going on. “I kind of thought of it as motivation for me because I’m probably the only positive thing going on in my town right now. So I just thought of it as bringing my city up. So that’s why I came out here and played hard.”
And like his coaches, Dobbins wasn’t surprised by what he was able to do.
“I felt like I was going to do the things I did,” he said. “I practice against the best defense in college football every day and I’ve got a great offensive line. Billy (Price) is an All-American, and we’ve got all of the other guys around him. I kind of knew, I kind of felt that I was gonna do what I did.”
So Now What?
Dobbins is currently the No. 5 rusher in the nation after one week, but he is still the No. 2 running back at Ohio State.
Asked to name his starting running back after the game, Urban Meyer offered up a very sly answer.
“Uh…J.K. Weber,” he said smiling as he looked at Dobbins sitting next to him. “Is that your last name? We’ve got two really good backs, and I’ll tell you, Antonio (Williams) did a nice job. We have some good backs for us.”
Kevin Wilson said after the game that he hasn’t thought about what the running game will look like once Weber returns. It’s clear that Dobbins will play, but the coaches are also anxious to get Weber into the mix because of the improvements he’s made since last season. Meyer insists it will be a nice 1-2 punch for the Buckeyes.
Weber expects to step back into the starter’s role once he is healthy enough to do so, but don’t expect Dobbins to disappear into the background. He is simply too good for that.
“He’s gifted, blessed,” Wilson said. “For a fast kid, he has great vision and great instincts. A lot of fast guys can run, but for a fast guy, his vision and instincts as a runner are pretty natural. And you put that combination with some high-end speed and he’s off to a good start.”