It's pretty wild to think that a season in which a starting running back churns out over 1,000 rushing yards with 10 touchdowns would be a regression – and even a bit of a disappointment – but that's exactly where J.K. Dobbins' mind sits as he gets ready to turn things around this fall.
To his credit, Dobbins is his harshest critic as evidenced by his comments earlier this week and the junior is dead set on doing everything necessary to ensure his 2019 season more closely resembles his output as a true freshman in 2017 instead of the production from a season ago.
Ahead of that true freshman season, Dobbins, by way of LaGrange, Texas, was set to serve as Mike Weber's backup but after an injury limited Weber's availability in fall camp and to start the season, Dobbins was thrust into the starting gig and did not disappoint.
While becoming just the sixth true freshman to start in a season opener for the Buckeyes, Dobbins torched Indiana for 181 rushing yards on a what would turn out to be a season-high 29 carries – many of which featured his now-signature jump cut – as Ohio State ran away from the Hoosiers, 49-21 in Bloomington.
Two weeks later he lit up Army for 172 yards on just 13 carries (13.2 ypc) with a pair of touchdowns. He would go on to run for over 100 yards at Nebraska, versus No. 12 Michigan State and at Michigan before shredding No. 4 Wisconsin for 117 yards on 10.2 per carry in the Big Ten Championship game.
When the dust settled, Dobbins racked up an Ohio State freshman record 1,403 rushing yards and just missed setting a new single-season yards per carry standard finishing at 7.2, just shy of Carlos Hyde's record of 7.3. The nation took notice as he earned ESPN Freshman All-American and second-team all-Big Ten honors from both the coaches and media.
Dobbins' big freshman season unfolded behind a dual-threat quarterback in J.T. Barrett allowing Urban Meyer to feature a heavy dose of zone read plays. In fact, Ohio State ran the ball on 57% of the offense's 1,029 snaps.
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Heading into the 2018 season, with Dobbins the No.1 tailback but still paired with Weber to form a dynamic 1-2 punch, the key difference in the backfield came in the form off a pro-style passing quarterback with Dwayne Haskins replacing Barrett.
While the expectation was Ohio State would likely be a little bit more reliant on the passing game, the reality was the Buckeyes would become chiefly dependent on the aerial attack for a host of reasons. Those included Haskins' ridiculous talent, a plethora of receiving weapons, how opposing defenses were scheming against Meyer and Ryan Day's offense, and the fact the running game struggled to consistently find its footing while the passing game thrived.
The cumulative effect saw Dobbins rush for 350 fewer yards than he produced in 2017 despite logging 36 more carries. Of course, that reality was driven by a 4.6 yards per carry average which didn't compare so favorably to his mark of 7.2 as a freshman. The lack of running lanes certainly played a part in the drop off in yards per carry as Dobbins tallied a sturdy 59% of his rushing yards after first contact.
As a freshman in 2017, Dobbins ranked 8th in the country with 16 carries of 20+ yards and eight carries of at least 30 yards. As a sophomore, Dobbins wasn't in the top 100 in either metric.
After recording six 100-yard rushing outings as a freshman, Dobbins reached the century mark just three times last season although all were crucial. Dobbins ran for 121 yards in a 40-28 win over No. 15 TCU, 163 rushing yards with three touchdowns in a 36-31 victory over Nebraska and his 203-yard, 37-carry, one-touchdown effort helped save the day in a 52-51 overtime win at Maryland.
Still, with Ohio State throwing the ball on 50% of the snaps and Weber averaging nearly a full-yard more per carry, Dobbins simply wasn't as effective as he was the year prior.
Turning the page to 2019, the laser-focused Dobbins is primed to blow up for three reasons. One, as he stated, he's hungry to get back to his 2017 form. Two, the Buckeyes lack a clear-cut backup to Dobbins at this point, let alone a co-starter type of back like Weber. Three, the offensive attack should more closely resemble the 2017 squad as quarterback Justin Fields slots in as the starter and features a dual-threat style tailor-made to complement Dobbins' slashing running style.
It's worth a mention another motivating factor comes as a strong campaign would position Dobbins well for the 2020 NFL Draft which the true junior would absolutely need to consider after three collegiate seasons averaging well over 200 carries. Assuming things unfold as expected, he couldn't likely improve his draft stock by coming back for a senior season and in fact, would likely only hurt his stock making it a no-brainer to leave Columbus early.
For now though, it's safe to assume the mature Dobbins is only focused on leading Ohio State's offense to more balanced production and racking up wins in the process.
The rest will take care of itself.