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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 Buckeyes true freshman to start there since Maurice Clarett in 2002. “Not surprised at all,” then-coach Urban Meyer said after Dobbins ran for 182 yards in his debut. “We’ve seen that since spring practice. I mean, 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 second-year 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. He 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. You know, don’t be patient. 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 late-season 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 All-American 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, 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,” he 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. But I have a good relationship with all of them.”
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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, a bruising back known as “Gus the Bus,” has focused on his open-field agility, adding more lean muscle to his 230-plus-pound frame. “If they hand him the ball like they handed it to him last year, he’s definitely going to make some people miss,” said Baltimore-based trainer P.J. Quarrie, who’s worked with Edwards and Hill this offseason.
Hill, meanwhile, has focused on his health and injury prevention. “Justice is being Justice. He looks good,” Quarrie said. “His weight is there. He’s a solid 200 [pounds]. His movement is there.”
With no preseason games on the schedule, Week 1 repetitions will be earned in practice. After three years at a blue-blood program, Dobbins is used to high-level competition. It probably won’t compare to anything like the next six weeks will be.
“My role is predicated off how I practice and how I play,” he said. “So I’m just [going to] come in, work hard and try to be the best I can, and the chips will fall in where they fall in.”
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. … The Ravens Foundation Inc. recently awarded $100,000 in grants to 24 nonprofit organizations in the Baltimore area, the team announced. The Ravens’ Play 60 Grant provides financial support of up to $10,000 for both new and expanding programs or endeavors that promote physical fitness and/or nutrition education among youth.