Find­ing room in a crowded back­field

That’s what rookie RB Dob­bins plans on do­ing in 2020 sea­son

Baltimore Sun - - SPORTS - By Jonas Shaf­fer

Pa­tience is a hall­mark of all great run­ning backs, but no coach who’s had J.K. Dob­bins has ever asked him to wait very long.

At La Grange High School, in a small Texas city be­tween Hous­ton and Austin, Dob­bins was the only fresh­man on the var­sity.

“He’s a spe­cial kid,” Leop­ards coach Matt Kates told a lo­cal news­pa­per be­fore the 2013 sea­son. “We’ve got to get him the ball. He does things you just can’t coach.”

At Ohio State, a na­tional pow­er­house and run­ning back fac­tory, Dob­bins be­came the first true fresh­man Buck­eye to start there since Mau­rice Clarett in 2002.

“Not sur­prised at all,” then­coach Ur­ban Meyer said af­ter Dob­bins ran for 182 yards in his de­but. “We’ve seen that since spring prac­tice. He walked in as a grown man.”

There are a hand­ful of Dob­binses across the NFL, rook­ies with only a faint idea of what it means to look up at some­one else on the depth chart. There are also only a hand­ful of teams with the kind of run­ning back room Dob­bins now en­ters. His team­mates are a Pro Bowl player, the NFL’s No. 3 rusher (by yards per carry) and a much-im­proved sec­ondyear back.

The Ravens will run the ball a lot in 2020, maybe more than any other team. But if the tal­ent around Dob­bins gets in his way, if the go-to role he’s earned since he was 14 years old starts to feel marginal­ized, does he know he can be pa­tient?

Hear­ing the ques­tion Fri­day, he tilted his head and sucked his teeth and then grinned.

“I mean, I don’t know how pa­tient I can be,” Dob­bins said in a con­fer­ence call. “My thing is, I’m just try­ing to work hard. I’m go­ing to try to play. I’m go­ing to try to get on the field some way, some­how. My goal ain’t to be pa­tient. I was not that taught that in col­lege. Take ad­van­tage of your op­por­tu­ni­ties.

“I’m not say­ing that I’m go­ing to start or any­thing, but I feel like if I just work hard enough and show the coaches that I can play at this level, then I’ll be on the field. So my goal is to help the team win the Su­per Bowl [by] not

sit­ting on the bench.”

How­ever far the Ravens make it this sea­son — as­sum­ing there’s a sea­son at all — at least one qual­ity run­ning back, and likely two, will be bench-bound.

Re­turn­ing starter Mark In­gram II, who led the team in car­ries last sea­son (202 for 1,018 yards), is fully healthy af­ter a late­sea­son calf in­jury. Gus Ed­wards, who av­er­aged 5.3 yards per carry in his sec­ond year, could be play­ing for a free-agent deal in 2021. Jus­tice Hill, a 2019 fourth-round pick, showed his all-around abil­ity late in his rookie sea­son (68 re­ceiv­ing yards over his fi­nal three games).

Now en­ter Dob­bins, a first-team Al­lAmer­i­can and sec­ond-round pick who rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his three sea­sons in Colum­bus, in­clud­ing 2,003 last year. Even if in­juries strike the po­si­tion, as Ravens gen­eral man­ager Eric DeCosta ex­pects they will, there are only so many snaps and car­ries to go around.

The team didn’t run any plays last sea­son with two-run­ning-back for­ma­tions, in­stead re­ly­ing on full­backs and tight ends to open holes and quar­ter­back La­mar Jackson to stress run de­fenses.

“Well, I love good prob­lems,” of­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Greg Ro­man said in a June con­fer­ence call. “I think I’ve learned over the years, if you have good prob­lems, [then] bring them this way. And I say that un­abashedly. Tal­ented, hard­work­ing play­ers that love foot­ball, bring them on.

“And the fact that we have a lot of guys in our run­ning back sta­ble, if you will, just makes me ex­cited to no end. I don’t think you can have enough re­ally good run­ning backs.”

Win­ning smooths over most prob­lems, but the Ravens’ run­ning backs seem un­likely to butt heads or raise hell. In­gram needed less than a year in Baltimore to earn the re­spect of the locker room, and he re­mains a will­ing men­tor. When­ever Dob­bins has a ques­tion, In­gram texts him back.

“Mark’s go­ing to be an older brother to me,” Dob­bins said.

In Fe­bru­ary, In­gram va­ca­tioned in Brazil with Hill, Ed­wards, and for­mer prac­tice squad run­ning backs De’Lance Turner and By­ron Mar­shall. When the coron­avirus locked down Mary­land, Hill and Ed­wards passed the time in quar­an­tine together by record­ing TikTok videos. Be­fore re­port­ing to camp this week, the two worked out together reg­u­larly.

“Those are my guys al­ready,” said Dob­bins, who, be­cause of the pan­demic, hasn’t spent much time with his fel­low backs. “Hon­estly, I’m glad that I have [three] other run­ning backs with me to help me as a rookie. I have a good re­la­tion­ship with all of them.”

Their off­sea­son bat­tle has been fierce, even while hun­dreds or thou­sands of miles apart.

In­gram re­ha­bil­i­tated and trained with for­mer New Or­leans Saints team­mate Alvin

Ka­mara in Miami. Dob­bins spent part of the sum­mer work­ing out with Min­nesota Vik­ings run­ning back Dalvin Cook, who “taught me a lot of things just in the short pe­riod of time” about per­form­ing at a Pro Bowl level.

Ed­wards “Gus the Bus,” has fo­cused on his open-field agility, adding more lean mus­cle to his 230-plus-pound frame. Hill, mean­while, has fo­cused on his health and in­jury preven­tion.

With no pre­sea­son games on the sched­ule, Week 1 rep­e­ti­tions will be earned in prac­tice.

“My role is pred­i­cated off how I prac­tice and how I play,” Dob­bins said. “I’m just [go­ing to] come in, work hard and try to be the best I can.”

Note: The Ravens an­nounced Fri­day that they’ve waived un­drafted rookie Jeff Hec­tor, a corner­back from Di­vi­sion III Red­lands. The team must cut its ros­ter to 80 play­ers by the start of padded prac­tices in mid-Au­gust.

CHAR­LIE NEIBERGALL/AP

Ravens run­ning back J.K. Dob­bins has his sights set on con­tribut­ing as a rookie.

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