COLUMBUS — Ohio State running back J.K. Dobbins watched the film. He saw a difference.
After studying his tape from his first two seasons, he could tell last year wasn’t his best.
So Dobbins went back to the basics. He started over. He asked for a workload.
Now that Mike Weber is gone, Dobbins is the feature back by himself, new territory for the junior. Dobbins worked well with Weber while they split carries for two years. But the running back room belongs to Dobbins now.
With that change, he had what head coach Ryan Day called a “white-belt mentality” this spring, one that Dobbins thinks will make him break out — again.
“Going back and looking at my freshman year, I think I’ll be back that way — even better, though, than that year,” Dobbins said.
Dobbins didn’t need to do it. He had no obligation to reboot as if he was a freshman and demand to be worked the way he has been over the last few months. But that’s the way he wants to operate after a bad season, by his standards.
A “down season” for Dobbins still included 1,053 yards on the ground and 12 touchdowns, 350 fewer yards on 36 more carries than he had during his freshman season. Last season featured Heisman Trophy expectations, but Dobbins fell short of that while Dwayne Haskins threw all over defenses and was the focus of the Ohio State offense.
So Dobbins went back to work. He had conversations about practice workload with the coaching staff about the spring. Coaches don’t normally take requests, but this was one they were fine with hearing: Dobbins wanted more carries in the offseason.
“I have to get better,” Dobbins said. “I can’t get better if I’m resting. I have to get in there and work on my craft.”
He worked tirelessly in the weight room and on the field to fine-tune his skills, including footwork drills with running backs coach Tony Alford and Day. One focus: Keeping his feet on the ground, never lifting them through the hole or on cuts in the open field.
As Dobbins refocuses, the Buckeyes will shift from the pass-heavy Haskins to new quarterback Justin Fields. Dobbins is expected to carry the workload he had when J.T. Barrett was his quarterback and the Buckeyes ran a dual-threat system in the backfield.
That’s what Dobbins looked more comfortable in. But the offense never actually changes. It just adapts to what the Buckeyes have.
“It’s the same offense, it’s just what we call more, what we emphasize more,” Day said.
Last season, they had a first-round quarterback who was capable of throwing 50 touchdown passes and a stable of backs. This year, they’ll have Fields — who has little experience, but is shifty on the ground — and Dobbins.
The Buckeyes also lost a trio of wide receivers to the NFL and, of course, Weber. Dobbins knows he’ll likely have to make up for what Ohio State lost when Weber skipped his last year of college football for the NFL. He’s fine with that.
“It didn’t bother me splitting reps, but you approach the game differently,” Dobbins said. “It wasn’t necessarily us being bothered by splitting reps, it just changed our games.”
The game will change again as Dobbins becomes the bonafide bell-cow for the Buckeyes this year. The offense might look different with Fields in control. Weber isn’t there to platoon with him when he needs a break. Master Teague and DeMario McCall will give him breaks when he needs them, but Dobbins is training to be the No. 1 guy.
After an offseason in which he went back to the bare bones and started from scratch, he’s a changed player.
When he turns on the film after his junior year, it’s fair to expect J.K. Dobbins will see a difference.