Given the objective nature of the content, rarely is this space used to share personal anecdotes. This week, however, we're going to break that rule.
Just over one year ago, I found myself among hundreds of high school coaches at the 2017 Ohio State coaches clinic, wandering the sidelines of the outdoor fields at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center to witness the Buckeyes take part in their final spring practice. For those of us that don't get to take in these sessions on a regular basis, it's hard not to marvel at the mere specter of athletes with such size and speed go through their regular paces from such a close distance.
As I walked from station to station with some of the coaches in attendance, there always seemed to be a player or two that stood out for such reasons. My eyes immediately locked on to Isaiah Prince and his massive frame; to Parris Campbell's explosive speed after catching the football; to Nick Bosa's technique going through bag drills.
When I reached the running back station, I expected to see little that surprised me from the relatively small group. Mike Weber was coming off a 1,000-yard season the year prior and written in the starting lineup with a permanent marker.
However, like the rest of you, I was a bit curious to see the tailback from Texas that everyone had whispered about throughout spring ball. Though he'd been rated as one of the nation's top running back prospects, J.K. Dobbins missed nearly his entire senior year - a season that had wrapped up just 5 months prior to this particular moment in time.
Yet upon reaching the mixture of hurdles, cones, bags, and dummies laid out perfectly by Tony Alford's student managers, it was impossible to take my eyes off of #2. After watching him go through the drills a couple times, I needed some validation for what I'd just witnessed. As I turned to the coach next to me, I made a wide-eyed look that said 'holy snotpockets, are you seeing this too??' to which the prep defensive coordinator simply replied, 'uh-huh' as he nodded in agreement.
For months, I'd rave to the other 11W staffers about what I'd seen from the freshman back, proclaiming he had the potential to be another Zeke Elliott. But although I was high on the kid, I had no idea he was capable of what we saw in the season opener against Indiana.
After that night in Bloomington, the secret was out: Ohio State had yet another in its long line of star tailbacks.
Dobbins, of course, would not only never give the starting job back to Weber, but the true freshman would tally 1,403 yards at a ridiculous clip of 7.2 yards-per-carry. Those marks not only surpassed the previous freshman records set by Maurice Clarett but earned the Texan 2nd Team All-Big Ten honors.
As he prepares for his second season on campus, one in which he's expected to receive an even-heavier load without J.T. Barrett's running prowess and receive serious consideration among Heisman voters as a result, it's easy to assume Dobbins is simply working to get stronger and faster or to master the final nuances of the playbook. Such an assumption sells the efforts of his coach far too short, however.
Though running back is often the position in which pure physical talent make the difference between good and great, there is plenty of work to be done to refine that talent, which is where Alford comes in. Dobbins may run with a low center of gravity, making him difficult to bring down, but that's because he spends a great deal of time working on balance drills in practice.
As you can see, not only is Dobbins forced to get comfortable using his off-hand to keep himself off the ground, he's used to absorbing contact in the process thanks to Alford's favorite toy. These padded baseball bats seem to find their way into every single one of the coach's drills, swiping at the ball to simulate a defender trying to force a fumble.
“If I take that bat and hit that ball and you're not carrying that ball properly, the ball comes out. It's better than me just tapping my hand on it,” Alford said. “It's an emphasis point where we're swinging that bat at them. It's just an emphasis and always having that ball secured.”
In only his second game as a Buckeye, it was already easy to see the effects of such a focus, as Dobbins fails to fumble after two direct swipes at the ball on the same play.
As that first clip against Indiana showed, what separates Dobbins from other backs is his ability to jump-cut laterally and explode out of his break, leaving defenders grasping at air. While this skill may be most enjoyable to watch when he's out in the open field, it's a critical technique that is employed by Buckeye running backs on nearly every carry.
While the passing playbook may have changed with the arrival of Ryan Day and Kevin Wilson before the 2017 season, the base running game remains very similar to the one installed by Tom Herman in 2012. Though there is a mix of inside and outside, gap and zone schemes, the foundational play of Urban Meyer's Ohio State offense remains the Tight (inside) Zone run.
Though simple in theory, there are countless rules and adaptations to the Inside Zone that must be mastered, not only by the blockers responsible for creating a seam but by the runner looking for it. Though the back's aiming point is the butt of the center, the back is supposed to read the gaps on either side of him, going from the front-side A-gap to the backside A-gap, and finally working to the backside B-gap between the guard and tackle.
As we see here, Dobbins is under control and patent after receiving the handoff, reading both A-gaps before juking to the backside B-gap and exploding through the hole. The young runner looks incredibly comfortable here, almost making his job look too easy.
Once again, Alford deserves some credit. Although Dobbins may have seen relatively few 'live' carries in practice to this point, he'd replicated these movements hundreds of times.
But Buckeye runners are no longer limited to the space between the tackles, as an increased reliance on stretch plays was seen last fall. These zone-blocked plays are a great compliment to a quick pass in the RPO game, but with a back like Dobbins, they're also quite effective on their own.
On these plays, the back takes the handoff and runs parallel to the line of scrimmage, only turning his shoulders upfield once he identifies a gap near the spot where the play-side tackle lined up. As the hole appears, the runner must quickly plant and bursts through the gap where he'll likely see contact from defenders at two levels.
While a concept like this may seem difficult to simulate, Alford once again has an answer, forcing Dobbins to get comfortable making the quick turn north before running through trash.
Again, if Dobbins didn't do anything besides stretch in practice, he'd still be tough to tackle come Saturdays. However, the difference between going 12-0 and 10-2 is often a slim one, and Meyer and his staff will do everything they can to prepare their players for game days.
In the past, that meant driving players into the ground by repping plays over and over until they'd seen and mastered every variation possible. But with a focus on health and player safety, there are far fewer 'live' reps available, especially for young players trying to break into the lineup. For this reason, Alford deserves credit for crafting ways to train his troops without subjecting them to live contact.
Juking exercise balls and getting slapped at by a baseball bat may sound like an odd way to prepare for breaking tackles. But as J'Kaylin Dobbins showed us last fall, there's plenty of merit to this approach.