Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins had just finished his postgame video conference after a 38-3 road win Sunday over the Cincinnati Bengals, raving about the opportunity to live out his playoff dreams, when he passed by coach John Harbaugh who was next in line to speak to reporters.
“You are a big-time player,” Harbaugh told the team’s burgeoning star after a career-high 160-yard rushing performance.
The grand stage, now a wild-card-round matchup with the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, isn’t foreign to the 22-year-old. He competed for high school titles in Texas and national championships at Ohio State, usually quickly ascending to a starring role.
But before breaking out in a record-setting rookie campaign in Baltimore, Dobbins’ patience was tested, and he had to grow as a person.
“I don’t know about waiting for his opportunity; I think he’s been working for his opportunity and growing and learning,” Harbaugh said Monday. “He’s a great competitor, of course.”
Years ago, it didn’t take long for word to spread about the football prowess of a young Dobbins in La Grange, Texas — a small city with a population of about 5,000 located between Houston and Austin.
The Dobbins name was already well known in La Grange. J.K.’s grandparents were “a staple” in the community, said La Grange football coach Matt Kates. His father, Lawrence, was a former football and track and field star at La Grange High School in the 1990s. When J.K. was 15, Lawrence died of a stroke, but he’d left an indelible mark on his son.
“I had a wonderful relationship with my dad, still miss him today,” Dobbins said in an interview Wednesday. “He was fast; he won a state championship in track in the 100-meter dash. … We started a friendly competition, like, ‘One day, I’m going to be faster than you.’ He always pushed me.”
La Grange had one elementary school, one middle school and one high school, so by the time Dobbins arrived as a freshman, Kates was well aware of Dobbins’ ability. “You see him coming all the way from first, second grade. You’re like, ‘This kid can run,’ ” Kates said in an interview Thursday.
Stuck behind two upperclassman running backs as a freshman on the varsity team, Dobbins started the season at cornerback. Kates estimated that Dobbins got only about 20 carries, but by the end of the year, the team was using Dobbins as a slot receiver on jet sweeps and some of the outside runs that the Ravens have incorporated into their offense. “He was pretty dynamic in the slot, but he was only 165 pounds at the time,” Kates said.
The next two seasons, it was all Dobbins. He rushed for over 5,000 yards total as a sophomore and junior and was one of the most highly recruited prospects in the country. The only thing that could stop Dobbins was a gruesome leg injury, which robbed him of all but one play in his senior year.
After enrolling early at Ohio State for spring football in 2017, he didn’t need long to impress. Even with the return of Mike Weber, a 1,000-yard rusher as a redshirt freshman and future NFL draft pick, Buckeyes coaches acknowledged that it wouldn’t be easy to sit Dobbins for long. He rushed for 181 yards in his debut and 1,403 yards overall, an Ohio State freshman record. In 2019, he became the first player in program history to run for 2,000 yards in a season.
When the Ravens selected Dobbins in the second round of the 2020 draft with the No. 55 overall pick, it was a surprise to some. After running for an NFL-record 3,296 yards in 2019, the team didn’t appear to need another dynamic back. Maybe no one was more surprised than Dobbins, who hadn’t expected to slide past the Miami Dolphins at No. 30 overall, said Nick Hicks, who trained Dobbins in South Florida for much of the offseason.
“When he was picked [by the Ravens], he was excited. He was like, ‘Super Bowl, Super Bowl, Super Bowl,’ ” Hicks said.
Dobbins brought to Baltimore the same confidence and obsessive work ethic that had taken him to stardom in La Grange and Columbus, Ohio. He went back and forth with defensive teammates in training camp drills. Running backs coach Matt Weiss revealed that Dobbins, who he said was “kind of wired a little bit differently,” had been talking trash to strength and conditioning coaches in the weight room.
“He’s the most intrinsically motivated person, player that I’ve ever been around,” Kates said.
Harbaugh predicted that a “significant role” awaited Dobbins, but his touches — and impact — were limited throughout the first half of the season as the offense shuffled through a rotation. Dobbins would later say his lack of involvement was hard to accept at times and resulted in some mental lapses. The team’s Week 5 win over the Cincinnati Bengals, in which he received just one carry, was particularly humbling.
Still confident but a bit unsettled, Dobbins approached the team’s clinician, Dr. Tricia Bent-Goodley, in search of options to calm his nerves. Bent-Goodley suggested meditation, an exercise Dobbins had never considered. But he took the advice and began the daily ritual.
“It just helps me relax, get my mental right, have a great mental going into the day, the next day, and being right, ready to go,” Dobbins said.
In between meditation, Dobbins has made time to read “Shoe Dog,” a memoir from Nike co-founder Phil Knight that chronicles the history of one of the world’s most iconic brands. Dobbins had heard of the book back at Ohio State, and it was a fitting read for the Nike-endorsed athlete. “He had to start out slow, like I started slow,” he said.
With Mark Ingram II’s playing time falling off after a midseason ankle injury, Dobbins has helped lead the way for a more spread-heavy offense. The Ravens have rushed for 1,337 yards since Week 13, the most in a five-week span in the NFL’s modern era, and Dobbins finished No. 1 among all running backs in yards per carry (6.0). He has a touchdown in six straight games and nine scores total, the most by a rookie in franchise history.
“In the beginning of the season, he was doing great for a rookie,” quarterback Lamar Jackson said. “And I don’t know what happened, [but] when I got back from my COVID [bout in Week 13], he just excelled. He’s just been running the ball even tougher. He’s been focused throughout the game. He’s explosive, elusive.”
And patient, too. On Dobbins’ 72-yard touchdown against the Bengals, he waited for fullback Patrick Ricard to give him an opening before accelerating for the team’s longest run this season. It was an approach that now personifies Dobbins: calm, almost Zen-like.
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“I’ve been doing that my whole life, so it’s easy,” Dobbins said of his on-field ability. “But adding that extra dimension to me has helped so much.”
Sunday, 1 p.m.
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Line: Ravens by 3