COLUMBUS, Ohio — As a running back target of Ohio State’s, one would imagine J.K. Dobbins heard Ezekiel Elliott’s name plenty as Urban Meyer and his staff made their recruiting pitch.
The Buckeyes early enrollee, however, insists that wasn’t the case.
“Really, whenever they were recruiting me, we didn’t really just talk about that type of stuff,” Dobbins said on National Signing Day. “It was mainly about family. It was just normal, people talk.”
That’s not to say the second-ranked all-purpose back in the 2017 class didn’t know what he was getting himself into joining the backfield formerly occupied by one of football’s most famous players. A native of La Grange, Texas, Dobbins didn’t have to come to Columbus to see the shadow Elliott casts.
“I’ve always looked up to Zeke. Zeke is a great player. It kind of had an influence on me,” he admitted, before adding, “but I felt like it was just about me.”
But while Dobbins has downplayed the effect Elliott had in attracting him to Ohio State, the Buckeyes freshman would be wise to study the college career of the now-Dallas Cowboys star — and not just because Elliott is one of the best running backs in program history.
Joining a depleted Ohio State running backs room, the situation Dobbins now finds himself in is similar to the one Elliott did upon arriving in Columbus three years ago.
With reigning Big Ten Freshman of the Year Mike Weber back, it’s unlikely Dobbins can become the Buckeyes’ starter. But a big freshman season could put the Lone Star State native on a promising career trajectory.
“I just want to compete,” Dobbins said.
That was the same approach Elliott took four years ago, but with Carlos Hyde still on campus, carries were tough to come by. Serving as the 2013 Big Ten Running Back of the Year’s primary backup, Elliott totaled 262 yards and two touchdowns on just 30 attempts.
Where Elliott truly shined, however, was on special teams — particularly on kickoff coverage. In an otherwise forgettable blowout win over Purdue, the then-freshman provided the hardest hit of the game.
Following the flashes he showed as a freshman, Elliott entered 2014 as the Buckeyes’ undisputed starter at running back. The rest, as they say, is history. The fourth overall pick of the 2016 NFL draft, Elliott earned All-Pro honors as a rookie, rushing for 1,631 yards and 15 touchdowns in his debut campaign.
Those are obviously lofty standards for any player, let alone one preparing for the first spring practice of his college career. Then again, Meyer hasn’t been shy about using Elliott as a baseline for his expectations following his departure at the end of the 2015 campaign.
“No. Go be Zeke,” Meyer answered when asked if he had to have a talk with Weber about trying too hard to replicate Elliott’s success.
Weber did his best, rushing for 1,096 yards and nine touchdowns as a redshirt freshman. He’ll return to the Ohio State lineup in 2017 as one of the Big Ten’s best running backs.
Depth behind him in the Buckeyes backfield, however, is lacking. And that could provide Dobbins with opportunities similar to the ones Elliott enjoyed four years ago.
“Just get in and play early, do some great things early,” Dobbins said of his expectations for his freshman season. “Whatever they want me to do, I’ll do it.”
If Dobbins — who, unlike Elliott, enrolled early in Columbus for his college career— can take advantage, who knows what could come next? After all, Meyer told him during his recruitment that he was already better at his age than Elliott was his.
Perhaps Elliott came up more in Dobbins recruitment than the Buckeyes freshman is letting on.