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Why J.K. Dobbins and Mike Weber need each other

Dobbins may be a dark horse Heisman contender, but Mike Weber is a perfect, and necessary, compliment

NCAA Football: Cotton Bowl-Ohio State vs Southern California Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

If you were like me, you didn’t really know what to expect from J.K. Dobbins before last season started. Dobbins was a highly rated recruit — actually Meyer’s highest-rated pure running back, ahead of both Ezekiel Elliott and Curtis Samuel — but he was also injured for his senior season. Classified as an all-purpose back, it also wasn’t clear to me whether he might eventually move to H-back like Samuel.

But it was difficult to suppress the hype after his first game in a Buckeye uniform. Against Indiana, with Mike Weber sitting out, Dobbins ran for 181 yards on a season-high 29 carries. Dobbins’ running style was different than that of anyone from 2016. His lateral quickness and jump cuts gave Ohio State some explosive potential at running back that they really didn’t have in 2016. Curtis Samuel was explosive, but he wasn’t a full time running back, and the 2016 run game ranked just 84th in rushing IsoPPP.

Mike Weber was also solid in his first year as a starter in 2016, averaging six yards a carry and crossing the 1,000 yard threshold, but he was more of an efficiency runner averaging 5.6 highlight yards per opportunity. Efficiency is the most critical goal for the offense, so that’s no slight at that team’s Weber/Barrett/Samuel tandem, but Dobbins showed some promise of big play ability without a big dropoff in efficiency.

The run game improved in 2017, finishing 2nd in the country in rushing S&P+ and jumping to 32nd in rushing IsoPPP. Dobbins finished with over 1,400 yards as a freshman, supplanting the Weber in the process.

Dobbins freshman season has led to some Heisman talk during the offseason, with some sports books giving him 20/1 odds, tied for 8th.

But for as good as Dobbins was last season, and will be in 2018, the Ohio State run game will benefit exponentially from having the Dobbins-Weber 1-2 punch. Kevin Wilson sums this up in the tweet below, which Dobbins retweeted:

Dobbins’ primary strengths were his vision and lateral movement last season, which are top of the line, but he can still work on his top-end speed and strength, where Weber may have a slight edge. While both backs blended efficiency and explosiveness last season, Dobbins tended towards explosiveness while Weber was the more efficient back, as the charts below show.

Opportunity rate and highlight yards

First, opportunity rate, which measures runs of 5+ yards (efficiency), and highlight yards per opportunity, which averages yardage on only carries of 5+ yards (explosiveness):

This graph shows the division clearly — Weber had rock-solid efficiency last season, gaining 5+ yards on 46.5% of his runs, but averaged roughly two yards per carry less than Dobbins on those 5+ yard runs.

For some comparison, Weber’s 5-yard carry efficiency was better than Zeke’s in 2015 (which was an even 45%). Of course, these averages don’t account for game situation or opponent. Forty-one of Weber’s 101 carries were in a three-game stretch of Rutgers, Maryland, and Nebraska, and Weber’s two 100-yard games were against Illinois and Michigan State (another 20 carries), so those games certainly influence his efficiency numbers.

But the numbers still allow us to make comparisons with Dobbins, because he also played in those easier games too. Dobbins was significantly less efficient, but he was also far more explosive than Weber; 7.7 highlight yards per opportunity is outstanding, topping Zeke’s 2015 average of 6.0 highlight yards per opportunity.

You can make a decent comparison with Weber’s redshirt freshman season in 2016 too. Then, Weber averaged 5.6 highlight yards per opportunity, which is basically equivalent to his 2017 average, but Weber was also significantly less efficient than he was last year — 42.9%, which is basically equal to Dobbins’ 2017 average.

So last season’s run game improved because it had a more efficient Weber along with an explosive Dobbins.

Marginal efficiency and explosiveness

The second chart shows the same concepts — efficiency on the x-axis and explosiveness on the y-axis, but with new metrics: marginal efficiency and explosiveness.

Marginal efficiency and explosiveness are neat because they allow for better individual player statistics based on expected performance for each play’s down, distance, and yard line. Marginal efficiency looks at actual vs. expected success rate, while marginal explosiveness looks at actual vs. expected IsoPPP.

Broadly, this chart tells a similar story about Weber and Dobbins — Weber was more efficient than Dobbins, but Dobbins was more explosive. But it also provides some additional information too.

2017 national marginal efficiency and explosiveness averages were 1.3% and -.06, respectively. So both Dobbins and Weber were more efficient than the average college running back would be expected to be in each down, distance, and yard line, but Weber was actually slightly less explosive than average, while Dobbins was significantly more so.

You can see the difference in explosiveness in their rate of explosive carries, too. Weber had a 10+ yard run on 11.9% of his carries, while Dobbins got a 10+ yard run on nearly a fifth of his runs — 19.6% (a difference of 7.7%).

That’s not to say that Weber doesn’t have an explosive ability. He was certainly slowed by injuries, especially during the first part of the season, and he showed some breakaway speed against Michigan State and Michigan especially. In fact, on really long runs of 20+ yards, the two backs’ averages are much more similar — Dobbins at 8.2% and Weber at 5.9%.

Looking to 2018

So now we can project forward into 2018.

The big thing is that, given similar offensive line play (which is far from a guarantee!), it’s fair to assume that Dobbins will be at least a little more efficient as a sophomore. He’ll have had a full year+ in a college weight training program and be another year removed from his high school injury. Also, Weber made a similar jump after starting as a freshman.

Second, it’s maybe a little too simplistic to say that one back is “thunder” and the other is “lightning”, because both backs are efficient, and Weber showed some “lightning” potential towards the end of last season. But yeah, that basic comparison makes sense.

Third, Bill’s Ohio State season preview also gives us new success rate numbers for both backs. Weber actually had a higher success rate than Dobbins, which isn’t surprising given his higher opportunity rate — 58.4% compared to Dobbins’ 52.1%. Just another indicator to not take Weber for granted.

Fourth, with fewer quarterback carries expected in 2018, it will be interesting to see how this affects how defenses defend against both backs. Will there be more non-read running plays (with different blocking as a result)? Or can Haskins effectively use RPOs to keep defenses from keying on the running backs during read plays? That question, along with Haskins overall passing accuracy, could go a long way in determining the Buckeyes’ ceiling this season.

Finally, the Ohio State run game as a whole benefits significantly by having both backs divvy up the carries. Yes, Dobbins may have higher upside, but unless he shows significantly higher efficiency levels, Weber’s consistent 5-yard runs are huge. It’s fair to assume that Dobbins’ likelihood of breaking an explosive run decreases as he gets more tired throughout a game; rotating with Weber (though not necessarily an even split of carries!) keeps both backs fresher.