Everything Ryan Day and Tony Alford have said since Mike Weber declared for the 2019 NFL Draft, clearing up the running back picture at Ohio State, signals a significantly increased workload for J.K. Dobbins.
Now a junior, Dobbins doesn’t have to worry about splitting carries and snaps with Weber.
“I loved having Mike here,” Dobbins said on Friday. “And there was benefits to sharing carries. But knowing that I'll be getting 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.”
Expecting an increased role, Dobbins cut his body fat percentage from 12 to eight in the offseason. He lost fat and built muscle – remaining right around 215 pounds – to get back to his freshman form after a 2018 season that the harsh grader deemed a “failure.”
Dobbins has put plenty of pressure on himself to perform with increased touches. Day has referenced him as somebody who has to play well – especially early in the season – in order for the offense to reach its peak form as quickly as possible.
But Day also wants to see another running back himself as the Buckeyes' No. 2 option at the position.
“We don't have that,” Day said on Tuesday. “We have a lot of guys battling for it, but we do not have a legitimate backup running back right now.”
Whichever player wins that job likely won’t have a chance to crack 900 rushing yards, which Weber did last season. But they’ll have a guaranteed role in an offense that will utilize multiple running backs designed to keep Dobbins fresh – especially since the Buckeyes end the season with games against Penn State and Michigan.
“The home runs will come. We want those guys to get good pad level, we want them to run the ball where it's supposed to be run, and then win on contact.”– Ryan Day on what he's looking for in a backup running back
Master Teague and Demario McCall appear to be the leading candidates to serve as Dobbins’ backup, with freshmen Marcus Crowley and Steele Chambers in the mix, too.
Teague, a second-year back who redshirted in 2018, has the look of an every-down back. He’s well built at 5-foot-11, 220 pounds, and he clocked a 4.31-second 40-yard dash at an Ohio State camp during the summer before his senior year of high school.
The redshirt freshman lacks much experience, though, since he had just 17 carries for 106 yards and a touchdown in three early-season games before not playing the remainder of last year. Teague also missed Tuesday’s practice, which he spent rehabbing on a side field, with an undisclosed injury. If his injury hinders him for an extended period of time, it would set him back in his chase for the backup job.
McCall, preparing for his fourth year at Ohio State, once again finds himself working with the running backs after bouncing around positions throughout his career. The 5-foot-9, 195-pound speedster has flashed the past couple years, but he hasn’t found a modicum of consistency.
A combination of factors – including the lack of a position, injuries and slight stature – have held him back. But with a job wide open for him to win, it’s up to McCall to finally produce well enough in practice to earn the uptick in touches that would come with the backup spot.
“The first thing he's got to do is he's got to become the backup running back,” Day said. “That's the first thing he has to do, and that's what he's working on right now. But he's worked at receiver for different camps, whether it was spring camp, bowl practice or preseason. So he has a wide variety of skills, and so there's a lot of things that we can do with him. You saw that toward the end of last year. We're really just focusing on him being the backup running back because J.K. can't handle all of that by himself. He's going to need help.”
McCall should be able to offer help in ways unlike anybody else in the running back room.
He’s not built like a prototypical running back, but he’s explosive with the ball in his hands and has spent enough time at receiver in recent years to make him an intriguing pass-catching option out of the backfield.
“If he can win that (backup running back) job, then that'll be his role and then we can expand that as we go, and if he doesn't, then we have to figure out a package for him,” Day said. “But that's kind of the backup role right now that is critical for us on offense to try to figure out who that is.”
If neither Teague nor McCall runs away with the job, Alford and Day could consider turning to one of their freshmen.
Crowley, last year’s Gatorade Player of the Year in Florida, got a head start this spring by early enrolling. Chambers joined him in the backfield this summer.
“They're some hard workers,” Dobbins said. “I feel like if they keep working hard they'll be good. They've just got to keep learning the offense and just watching and learn how to do it here so you can succeed.”
If Day and Alford have everything go their way, though, the players they’ve spent years coaching will come through. Teague has a year of experience in the program, and McCall – even though he has bounced around positions – should be capable of winning a backup job as a fourth-year player.
The coaches, Day said, are looking for a backup who can pass protect and secure the ball. Ideally, they want somebody who can grind out five or six yards on any given carry.
“That's what we're asking this year,” Day said. “The home runs will come. We want those guys to get good pad level, we want them to run the ball where it's supposed to be run, and then win on contact. So if a linebacker is there to make a tackle or if a safety comes up with a tackle, we want them to run through contact, like a lot of running backs have done here in the past, and play with toughness and great pad level.”
Ohio State doesn't need Dobbins 2.0, and it doesn't have to find the next coming of Weber to be Dobbins' backup.
The team just needs reliability, and Day doesn't feel like he has seen that from the backup options quite yet.