A little over two years ago, J.K. Dobbins showed out in primetime on the national stage.
A swirl of events had thrust him into the starting lineup despite never having played a snap of collegiate football. His strong fall camp in 2017 helped him climb the depth chart. A more balanced offensive system put in by new offensive coordinator Ryan Day certainly helped. But primarily, a lingering hamstring injury to returning starter Mike Weber had opened the door for Dobbins to enter the starting lineup.
Simply put, he was way ahead of schedule when Ohio State traveled to Bloomington for a showdown with Indiana.
The moment wasn't too big for the undersized running back out of La Grange, Texas. The staff gave Dobbins an enormous workload as he carried the ball 29 times against the Hoosiers, registering an Ohio State single-game freshman rushing record of 181 yards. He added two catches for 24 yards to crack the 200-yard total offense mark in the 49-21 Buckeyes victory.
He dazzled Buckeye fans with an array of moves and natural elusiveness that left the Indiana defense tackling the wind.
That performance launched an incredible freshman season for Dobbins, who set a school record for rushing yards in a freshman season with 1,403. It was the kind of year that escalated the expectations for his sophomore season.
But those expectations weren't met.
By most standards, he had a fine year in 2018. He eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards and scored 10 touchdowns, but his overall production and impact slipped. After averaging 7.2 yards per carry as a freshman, that number dipped to 4.6 as a sophomore.
That dip motivated him.
“I didn’t make defenses fear me as I should,” Dobbins said while reflecting on his 2018 season, via Mitch Stacy of the Associated Press. “I just feel like I’m the best running back in the nation, and I want to prove that. I didn’t last year, and I have a chip on my shoulder because I know I can do better.”
Early returns indicate he's rounding back into the form most expected last year.
The season-opener looked like more of the same from his sophomore year as Dobbins struggled to find big holes against FAU. He tallied just 91 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, but the uninspired performance wasn't exclusive to him. The poor showing was more a reflection of the entire offense that seemingly took its foot off the pedal the moment it took a 28-point lead midway through the first quarter.
A week later against a Cincinnati defense that ranked in the top 10 nationally a season ago, he put on the show he'd been dreaming of all year.
Dobbins needed just one half of football to rip off 141 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. He was patient and decisive reading the holes in the line to rip off big chunks of yards, highlighted by a 60-yard touchdown scamper midway through the second quarter that put Ohio State up by 21.
With the Buckeyes leading by four scores at halftime, the staff shelved Dobbins for the rest of the game to give backups Master Teague and Demario McCall a solid look.
“J.K., when he got to the second level he was rolling today,” head coach Ryan Day said after the 42-0 demolition of Cincinnati. “I thought it was great getting J.K. going, and the O-line did an unbelievable job.”
Day will look for his running back to keep rolling his way through Indiana, where two years ago, his career as a Buckeye took off. And if he puts together another performance like he did against the Bearcats, he'll be off and running to a big junior season.