Nine plays into Ohio State’s first drive against Nebraska, freshman running back J.K. Dobbins took the handoff from quarterback J.T. Barrett and followed a block from redshirt sophomore tight end Rashod Berry to the left sideline.
Fifty-two yards later, Dobbins was in the end zone and the Buckeyes had their first score of the game. Like Dobbins, they never looked back.
“I saw [the defender] the whole time, and I knew I was going to have to beat him and he was the last person to beat,” Dobbins said after the game. “So I beat him.”
For Dobbins, everything this season has seemed to be just that simple. Any obstacle facing Dobbins so far, he has beat with ease. With 775 rushing yards on 100 carries this season, the 5-foot-10, 208-pound running back is on pace to become the fourth freshman running back in Ohio State history to rush for more than 1,000 yards.
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer knows the Buckeyes will rely heavily on Dobbins the remainder of season. He said Wednesday he intends to wear Dobbins out and not hold back on his usage of the freshman. That sentiment has not changed.
“We’ve had a couple games where he hasn’t had an opportunity to get a lot of carries and we’ll see him bust out,” Meyer said Saturday. “He’s just an exceptional player. And when you have a home-run hitter like that, you feed him the ball as much as you can.”
Dobbins has had an exceptional freshman season. Heading into the year, the expectation was that he would serve as redshirt sophomore Mike Weber’s backup. A hamstring injury to Weber in fall camp thrust Dobbins into a starting role. And even though Weber has returned, Dobbins has continued to shine.
“I didn’t think I would have this much success early, but I knew I would get a lot of success,” Dobbins said. “I think it’s advanced, but I’m glad I could help my team get a spark.”
He is far from the first freshman running back to provide his team with an unexpected spark.
Two years ago, then-freshman Penn State running back Saquon Barkley entered the season as the backup running back to Akeel Lynch, the team’s returning leading rusher. Barkley had had some big games before, but it wasn’t until an injury to Lynch in the fourth game of that season provided Barkley with an opportunity to claim the starting spot. Barkley missed two games with his own injury before making his debut as a starter against Ohio State. In that game, Barkley rushed for 194 yards on 26 carries.
That season, he established himself as a top threat out of the backfield for the Nittany Lions as he rushed for 1,076 yards on 182 carries. However, he was outshined in the Midwest by Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliott, who finished the season with 1,821 yards on 289 carries in his final collegiate campaign.
This season, Barkley has stolen the spotlight in the Big Ten, appearing to be an early favorite for the Heisman Trophy and a likely top-10 selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. Barkley is the face of Big Ten running backs right now, but Dobbins is in the early stages of what should be a fruitful collegiate career.
Dobbins currently has the edge on Barkley in rushing yards this season (775 to 649), but Barkley’s impact as a receiver and on special teams solidifies him as the top running back in not only the conference, but also the country.
The two will soon square off in arguably both teams’ most crucial game of the year. Just as the game between Elliott and Barkley was seemingly the start of Elliott passing the torch to Barkley as the face of Big Ten star running backs, this could be the changing of the guard from Barkley to Dobbins.
Dobbins might not have the same 194-yard breakout game as Barkley, but just as long as he provides his team with another spark, he will be satisfied with the end result.
“I know coach Meyer says he wants to get me the ball more, but if it’s all about winning the game, and it’s not going through me, then I’m fine with it,” Dobbins said. “Just want to help my team.”