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Can J.K. Dobbins return to his freshman form?

After a sophomore slump, Ohio State needs their star runner back.

It’s hard to find a whole lot to complain about with regards to the 2018 Ohio State offense. The defense was the big issue of that team — as we’ve documented about a million times — and the offense was, largely, a killing machine. Dwayne Haskins gashed defenses and became Ohio State’s first round one quarterback in decades. The receivers were excellent, as was the passing game on the whole. The Buckeyes finished 4th in offensive S&P+, behind only Oklahoma, Alabama, and Georgia; that’s pretty good company.

The Buckeyes weren’t just racking up points, however. They moved the ball efficiently (8th in marginal efficiency), be it on standard downs (11th), passing downs (5th), or in the face of pressure (17th in adjusted sack rate). That’s all awesome, and reflective of a team that could be absolutely lethal in the air. It’s also possible to highlight those numbers and acknowledge just how great they are, even though they did it by mostly abandoning a pretty major part of their traditional offense: the rushing attack.

The 2018 OSU rushing numbers are far less pretty. While the passing game finished top ten in just about everything but explosiveness, the rushing game was extremely pedestrian all season long. The Buckeyes finished 54th in rushing S&P+, 41st in rushing efficiency, and a truly paltry 120th in explosiveness. The lack of explosion wasn’t really new to an Urban Meyer offense (he’s always preferred efficiency and Ryan Day has a similar approach), but you’d be hard pressed to find a Buckeye rushing attack with less pop.

Now, to be fair, part of the lack of explosion is personnel related. Neither J.K. Dobbins nor Mike Weber is really known as a big play back, and while that doesn’t account for such a terrible final ranking, it would explain it away if Ohio State had finished with an underwhelming explosiveness ranking, as long as that ranking was closer to the middle of the pack. 120th is damn near last, and with the talent that Ohio State had, that kind of struggle can really only be explained by a scheme or fit issue.

I’m hesitant to say it was a scheme problem. Ryan Day doesn’t love to run, but it’s not like Ohio State was playing with a Mike Leachian air raid philosophy. The Buckeyes did run, they just did it a bit less than usual, and they did it significantly worse than they have in more than a decade.

That means that the problem probably lies in fit, and when you look there, the elephant in the room is pretty obvious: Day’s offense probably needs speed at halfback to be its best. Demario McCall had success in limited time at halfback because he has the speed to fit the offense. He, however, wasn’t the starter last year. J.K. Dobbins was. That seems to be where the issue lies.

The issue is, I should say, not actually with Dobbins. He’s an extremely talented player, as we saw in 2017, and I don’t think that scraping him is necessary or wise. I think that the issue is instead with the way that Ohio State is training him. Dobbins was listed at 5-foot-9.5, 199 pounds coming out of high school, which was slightly undersized for a back that has to carry the ball every down.

Ohio State responded, as they do, by bulking Dobbins up a bit, listing him at 5-foot-10, 208 pounds by the time he made his first start. At that size, Dobbins served as, essentially, an efficiency machine. He racked up just over seven yards per carry, and while he still wasn’t super explosive, he had the elusiveness and footwork to gash defenses between the hashmarks. His lack of elite speed didn’t really matter, because he was gaining good yardage consistently, and because he was almost never stuffed at the line (Ohio State was third in stuff rate in 2017).

In 2018, Dobbins entered the season listed at 5-foot-10, 215 pounds. That seems, based on his 2018 struggles, to be above what his frame can manage. At 208, Dobbins maintained elusiveness while having the power and durability to play through a full season of major college football. At 215? His yardage per carry dropped to 4.6, Ohio State’s stuff rate jumped up to 66th, and the rushing attack suffered because on top of the lack of explosion, there was now very little consistency to lean on.

Now, there’s a baked in response to this: J.T. Barrett. Barrett’s ability as a runner absolutely made things easier on Dobbins, and the addition of Justin Fields will make things easier on him in 2019. I wouldn’t be shocked at all if Dobbins jumped back up to about six yards per carry in 2019 next to Fields.

The Barrett response, however, doesn’t explain the noticeable difference in quickness that we saw in 2017 Dobbins and 2018 Dobbins. You can see it when directly comparing similar plays from each year. Look at this run in 2017:

That level of quickness and elusiveness just wasn’t there for Dobbins in 2018. Part of that can be put on the lack of Barrett, part of it can be put on poor offensive line play, but ultimately, part of it falls on the fact that Ohio State might have loaded a bit too much onto their halfback. Dobbins seemed to be at his ideal playing size in 2017, and while I understand the desire to have bigger, stronger players, it seems like the focus for Dobbins needs to shift for this season.

This wouldn’t be a brand new thing for Ohio State, even in just the past few years. Mike Weber was noticeably lighter in his junior season than he was as a freshman, and while it didn’t make a huge difference in the stats, Weber was a much greater threat to break away from defenses in 2017 and 2018 than he was in 2016, even as he battled injuries. Earlier in camp, Day noted that Dobbins had dropped his body fat even further from the ridiculous number that it was at in 2018.

How that impacts his play is yet to be seen. But, if Ohio State scaled/scales back the weight work and focuses more on footwork and speed for Dobbins, it could completely change the way that he plays, and return him to the elite form that he played at in 2017.

Hell, if Ohio State can get Dobbins back down to a size that his game is more comfortable at, pair him and Fields, and plop both of them in a completely Ryan Day offense, Dobbins may even surpass his freshman campaign. He may even live up to that Heisman hype he saw prior to 2018.