Tony Alford likes to describe the relationship he has with his running backs as one a father has with his son: You have to love them, but you don’t have to like them.
J.K. Dobbins knows this. When Alford called out to the junior running back, asking if he knew his coach didn’t like him, Dobbins’ response was quick.
“I know,” Dobbins said. “You love me.”
For Alford, that’s parenthood. That relationship with Dobbins has not changed.
One thing has changed for the running back heading into his third season: he will be the No. 1 running back for the Buckeyes, not splitting carries with a 1A, 1B on the depth chart. He will be the guy.
That is something Dobbins for which is prepared.
“If you give me the ball 30 times, I’m a still be all right,” Dobbins said. “I’m going to make sure I find a way to be all right.”
Dobbins plans to be the same running back with the same goals and running with the same confidence he has always had in the backfield.
But his approach is different. It’s one he developed with the humility he had to learn this past season when he split carries with running back Mike Weber.
Moving into his freshman season, Dobbins, according to Alford, was hungry, excelling in every single rep he took, working hard to be the best running back he could be.
Then, Dobbins found success. In the words of his running back coach, he had arrived.
In his sophomore season, sharing carries with Weber when he was healthy, Alford said Dobbins was always trying to take advantage of the number of touches he received, trying to make a huge play on every opportunity he was given.
Alford said Dobbins was worried about what he could not control, leading to frustration on the football field. Heading into the offseason, Alford’s goal was to not let his No. 1 running back overthink.
“Your plate is very full. Worry about what is on your plate, and let me and us worry about what we are doing over here,” Alford said. “You just do what you are supposed to do.”
As he watched film, looking at what went wrong in his second season, Dobbins said he did not see the explosiveness that he showed his freshman season.
Despite receiving more touches than in his first year, Dobbins’ running totals declined, averaging 4.6 yards per carry compared with the 7.2 yards per carry he averaged in 2017.
Heading into the 2019 season, Dobbins’ main goal is to get back to the 7.2.
“Last year, it was a down year for me,” Dobbins said. “Going back and looking at my freshman year, I want to be back that way.”
So Dobbins began what Ohio State head coach Ryan Day coined as the white belt mentality: starting over and asking to be practiced as if he were a freshman running back in his first collegiate practices.
Day said, with this mentality taken from martial arts, aspects of his game can be cleaned up and corrected.
The head coach said that in practice Dobbins was running with a cornerback one-on-one and jumped up in the air to make a cut. Instead, the running back should have kept his foot in the ground, making the cut without jumping.
And after that play, that’s what he worked on continuously.
“We really replicated the same play for him in practice and he made that change of direction, stuck his foot in the ground without getting in the air and then broke it for a big play,” Day said.
Day said he has not seen that kind of mentality from a lot of guys with the ceiling Dobbins has: to seek critiques in his game as a former freshman All-American.
“He’s listening, he’s working, he wants to get better, and he has that mentality,” Day said.
It’s something Dobbins wants to do. Alford said Dobbins went to him, wanting to practice with that same humility, to be broken down to lead to success.
“He’s practicing like he did when he was a true freshman,” Alford said. “This is exactly what I wanted.”
That drive is not new for Dobbins. It’s just getting back to the mindset he had before his freshman year, when he had to play for a spot on the depth chart.
Even though it’s a given what his role will be in the upcoming 2019 season, one of only a few questions for the Ohio State offense that has been answered, Dobbins is working for more than the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.
He is working for a place in the Ohio State history books.
“I just want to be legendary,” Dobbins said. “I want to be like Ezekiel Elliott and Archie Griffin, guys like that. Write my name in stone.”