In 2017, JK Dobbins had the best freshman season an Ohio State running back has ever had.
He rushed for 1,403 yards on 194 carries, averaging 7.2 yards per attempt.
His career began with a bang, having been thrust into the starting lineup in the season opener due to an injury to Mike Weber. In that opener, Dobbins carried the ball 29 times against the Indiana Hoosiers, rushing for 181 yards.
It would be the first of three games that season in which he rushed for at least 170 yards.
Dobbins tied Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor for the league lead in rushes of at least 20 yards with 16. It was two more than Penn State’s Saquon Barkley could manage. It took Taylor over 100 more attempts than Dobbins to reach his mark of 16.
Dobbins’ 10 rushes of at least 30 yards was one more than Taylor and one fewer than Barkley, and his four rushes for 50 yards or more was one fewer than each of Barkley and Taylor.
Then came last year.
Dobbins entered the 2018 season with Heisman hype and gaudy expectations.
And while he became the first Ohio State running back in school history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, it took him more carries than expected.
Dobbins rushed for 1,053 yards on 230 attempts, averaging just 4.6 yards per carry.
The 4.6 yards per carry were the lowest mark for a leading Buckeye rusher at running back since Lydell Ross managed 4.1 yards per carry in 2004.
There have been reasons tossed around and blame placed at the feet of many, but Dobbins is only pointing at himself for his drop off.
“I put it all on me,” he said after practice on Wednesday. “It’s not the offensive line’s fault, it’s not anyone else’s fault except for mine. I didn’t take advantage of my opportunities like I did my freshman year. So the results were what they were. I’ve just got to build on that and get better.”
After having 10 carries of at least 30 yards and four of at least 50 yards in 2017, Dobbins had just one carry of at least 30 yards last year.
In speaking with him, head coach Ryan Day believes he knows part of why Dobbins had a sophomore slump.
“Yeah, we’ve talked about it,” Day said. “I had a nice conversation with JK the other day. He’s the back now. I think he’ll tell you that maybe a little bit last year he was looking for home runs because he was splitting reps with Mike [Weber]. And so he’s going to have to make those 5-yard, 6-yard hard runs where he’s going to finish them for seven or eight and maybe not try to hit that home run. I think that’s important.”
In baseball, when a slugger hasn’t hit a home run in a while, they can begin forcing things, and it’s not until they get back to a more casual swing do they find their power again.
While there isn’t anything casual about being a running back, both Dobbins and Day believe he will be more comfortable in 2019 because his carries will go up and he won’t be worried about sitting down. Instead, he’ll just be looking for solid contact, and then a couple of extra yards beyond that contact.
“Last year I kind of got away from that,” he admitted. “I’m not going to make any excuses. I regressed last year. I didn’t have the year that I needed to have and so I put that on myself, and I’ll get back to that this upcoming year. I’ve never switched drives back-to-back. I wasn’t used to that. So a guy like me, you don’t know. You don’t know when you’re going to get your last carry. That’s why I was doing that. I’m going to work on that. That’s my fault.”
Dobbins said all of the right things last year in rotating possessions with Weber, but it was in the doing where he struggled. In trying to do too much he didn’t do enough. Now a bit slimmer and much more determined, he says last year is out of his system and he is ready for as many carries as his coaches will give him.
“His carries are going to be up and he’s going to be the lead dog, and we’ve got to find some depth there,” Day said. “There’s a lot of guys behind him that haven’t done anything. They’ve got to prove themselves and win some backup positions. Then hopefully the more we can get those guys going this spring, we can create more depth and take something off of his plate. But the plan going in right now is he’s going to be the back.”
And with big plans this season for Dobbins, this is not where he begins to save himself for the season ahead.
“This is where I go even harder,” he said. “So I can get ready and build my body for the season.”