One of the most famous tales in sports lore is that of Wally Pipp. As the story goes, Pipp, the first baseman for the New York Yankees in 1925, was scratched before a game with a severe headache and likely concussion. Subsequently, Pipp’s replacement, Lou Gehrig, ran with the job and set a nearly unbreakable consecutive games played record. Now, almost a century later, Pipp is no longer remembered as World Series champion, American League home run leader, or career .281 hitter. Rather, Pipp’s name has become synonymous with the cutthroat nature of sports, and how one injury can throw a great player’s name into obscurity. The quintessential modern day “Wally Pipp” is Drew Bledsoe.
Once the starting quarterback of the New England Patriots, Bledsoe suffered internal bleeding after a hit from linebacker Mo Lewis and never reassumed his position after Tom Brady was thrust into the lineup. However, the Lou Gehrig/Wally Pipp narrative is far more prevalent in sports than these two instances would suggest. QB Colin Kaepernick and CB Richard Sherman are both recent examples of players that saw young careers take off after entering as a supposedly temporary substitutes. Now, in Ohio State running back Mike Weber, the most recent incarnation of Wally Pipp may have emerged.
A 20-year-old redshirt sophomore from Detroit, Weber was recruited by programs like Ohio State, Michigan, Notre Dame, and North Carolina State, and ultimately signed with the Buckeyes despite the allure of his local Michigan Wolverines and their head coach, Jim Harbaugh. After suffering a meniscus injury prior to his freshman season, Weber redshirted, allowing future All-Pro Ezekiel Elliott to shoulder most of the workload. The following season, after Elliott moved on to the NFL, Weber finally saw playing time, splitting touches with Brooklyn product Curtis Samuel. Although Samuel received all of the draft hype, and was ultimately picked by the Carolina Panthers in the 2017 NFL Draft, Weber actually nearly doubled up Samuel’s carry total, 182 to 97.
With Samuel frequently featured as a scat back and occasionally split out as a slot receiver, Weber was the primary runner, and his gaudy totals of 1,096 yards and 9 touchdowns on the ground looked to be more than enough to establish his place as Ohio State’s starting back going forward. Unfortunately, as Wally Pipp and Drew Bledsoe have shown, “job security” in sports is about as real as the voice that Kate Siegel hears in Mike Flanagan’s Hush. As Weber sat out the Buckeyes’ season opener against Indiana with a hamstring injury, a legitimate contender emerged for Weber’s throne: true freshman J.K. Dobbins.
With Dobbins being the first true freshman running back to start a season opener for Ohio State since Maurice Clarett in 2002, there was little to do before his debut but speculate. However, any doubts cast on Dobbins by his age, lack of game tape, or inexperience were seemingly vanquished after Ohio State’s first offensive series.
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Dobbins’s performance was an absolute tour de force from the beginning, as he dragged Indiana’s defense up and down the field for 181 yards on 29 bruising carries. More impressive than any stat line, however, was how mature Dobbins looked all game, both physically and mentally. On almost every run, Dobbins showed tremendous patience, waiting for defenders to engage blockers first and then making hard, decisive cuts. Despite his lack of elite top-end speed, Dobbins was still able to break off a number of big runs due almost entirely to his vision.
Early in the second quarter, Dobbins got to the second level, seemed to be stonewalled, but somehow caught a glimpse of a hole in his peripheral view and made a long, lateral cut to pick up a clean 30+ yards. On numerous other plays, Dobbins was meticulous and balanced, getting skinny through the tiniest of openings.
Aside from vision, Dobbins also impressed with his power. By attacking tacklers head on, fighting through arm tackles, finishing runs, and falling forward for extra yards Dobbins showed the ability to run downhill with vision and force, much like the Arizona Cardinals’ David Johnson. On one play early in the third quarter, Dobbins managed to stay up and spin out of an unsightly crowd of Indiana defenders, leading to yet another big gain. Dobbins’s power is especially notable considering his youth: as a true freshman, he may still have multiple years of growing and bulking ahead of him; yet, on core and leg strength alone, he looks like he may already be able to run with the biggest and best at the college level.
With such a dominant showing in Dobbins’s first career start, rightfully, the overreactions began almost immediately. The very next day, Chicago Tribune reporter Teddy Greenstein wrote, “A bad hamstring is rarely a good thing. Except when the hammy shelves a starter [Weber] who, as it turns out, probably shouldn’t be the starter,” and that sentiment was echoed all across the college football community.
A few days later, Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer himself got on the hype train, modifying the Buckeyes’ depth chart for the upcoming Oklahoma game to list Dobbins and Weber as co-starters, which could be a sign of things to come. However, with Ohio State ranked No. 2 in the nation and in line to once again contend for a national title, the best move would be to give Weber the lion’s share of the touches despite Dobbins’s sensational debut.
Firstly, Weber has a major advantage in terms of experience. With two full seasons under Urban Meyer under his belt, and with experience against powerhouse teams like Michigan and Clemson, Weber has a clear edge in terms of intangibles. More importantly, however, there are parts of Weber’s skill set that Dobbins simply cannot replicate. First of all, Weber is significantly faster and far more explosive, meaning that he doesn’t need to find a backdoor cut to break off a big gain. Secondly, while Dobbins has shown signs of intricate footwork, Weber is still far more efficient in his movement. Weber’s hips are also more fluid, and he is able to find and access open space effortlessly, while Dobbins needs to rely on his patience. With Dobbins’s hips being significantly stiffer than Weber’s, Weber also gets the nod in terms of elusiveness. Against Indiana, Dobbins struggled in making defenders miss in open space. He rarely even attempted to sidestep, and when he tried to spin, it ended up slow and clunky. Weber’s spin move is far tighter, and his quick lateral movement is reminiscent of the New York Jets’ Matt Forté.
In essence, Ohio State’s running game should mimic what the Carolina Panthers will likely do this season. With a running quarterback (J.T. Barrett for Ohio State, Cam Newton for Carolina) at the helm, the backfield would feature a faster, smoother, more elusive lead back (Weber/Christian McCaffrey), complemented by a bigger, grittier runner with solid vision to boot (Dobbins/Jonathan Stewart). This allows the most productive, and ultimately most effective, back to get most of the carries, while keeping him fresh by allowing the complement back to get significant plays ofown in change-of-pace, goal line, and short yardage responsibilities. If the Buckeyes followed this formula, they would get the most out of their backfield: Weber would do the most damage, but Dobbins would ease the load and add his own flavor while gaining valuable experience for when his time ultimately comes next September. This is not to say that Dobbins is a bad player–far from it. His running style is eerily similar to a young Le’Veon Bell, and Dobbins could one day reach that ceiling. However, as it stands right now, Ohio State’s starting running back should remain Mike Weber.