It either takes fortunate circumstances – as it did for then-freshman guard Michael Jordan last year – or other-worldly talent for a true freshman to see the field when competing for time on a team like Ohio State.
It’s even more impressive when it’s at a position as deep as running back where the Buckeyes have four quality backs hoping to see the field in the upcoming season.
But then again, running backs coach Tony Alford said freshmen like J.K. Dobbins don’t come around all that often.
“(Dobbins) has picked it up faster than anybody I’ve ever been around in my 22 years as a true freshman,” Alford said Friday. “He’s picked it up, he understands the offense — the nuances of it — very, very quickly and he plays hard. He goes so hard at everything he does which is part of this program.”
Learning the offense as a true freshman can be difficult. Players often redshirt their first year with the team, as redshirt sophomore Mike Weber did, or they will ride the bench for a bulk of the season, like sophomore running back Antonio Williams last year.
After Friday’s practice, Williams said that freshman year was valuable to him to be able to learn about the offense and understand how to improve his game a little bit more so he’ll be ready for future seasons.
But that’s what makes Dobbins such a rare case. He’s being expected to learn the offense in during his debut campaign while also taking up a big role.
“J.K.’s a freak. He’s just a freak. You’ve got guys like that that just come through here every now and again, he’s one of those guys,” Williams said. “Watching him going through a freshman year, seeing how difficult it was to pick up on things, and then seeing how fast he did it.”
And Dobbins is expected to rack up some carries this season. When asked about who would back up Weber at running back, Alford said without a moment’s hesitation that it would be Dobbins.
“He’s going to contribute,” Alford said. “I’m not trying to be nice, it is what it is. I call it as it is.”
In Dobbins, Alford and the coaching staff believe they have a running back who combines not only the skills necessary to succeed at the collegiate level, but also the intellect to pick up on different aspects of the game that others his age take longer to develop.
While he has the speed to outrun defenders, Dobbins knows how to best utilize his speed to maximize every carry. Alford said that many running backs often run horizontally, avoiding hits. But Dobbins isn’t afraid to challenge defenders and make them miss to create the open field, according to his position coach.
“That’s unique for a young guy coming in to do that and to do it that fast and to understand why you do it and then to actually go do it is one thing,” Alford said.
But it’s not just his ability to pull off highlight reel runs that have garnered him attention. Dobbins has also received credit as an advanced blocker, considering his limited experience.
Alford said that more than anything else, it is the ability to thrive in pass protection when he’s not taking carries that has helped him stand out among other young backs that enter college more as one-dimensional players.
“I would like to think that the hardest thing for incoming freshmen running backs is pass protection,” Alford said. “Not only to protect it, but where to go and where they fit and all the different protection schemes and understanding fronts and different blitzes.”
Entering the year as the backup running back as a freshman will bring about several challenges for Dobbins. There is still plenty to learn, and he will have to continue to adjust to the new level of opposition he will face.
But given the progress he’s made so far, and the drive to keep building on his game, Alford is confident his young running back will excel in his first year.
“It’s been a great progression from spring to fall, but you can watch him daily progress. You can see him just, he figures it out. You’ll say something to him and he’ll sit there and just kind of look at you and this churn in his mind, ‘OK, here’s what you’re saying,’” Alford said. “He asks a lot of questions and they’re great questions. He wants to learn, and that’s the thing. He’s hungry to learn. You can’t ask for any more than that.”