Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins spent three seasons vying for the title of Big Ten’s best running back.
Now two of the conference’s most prolific runners find themselves engaged in yet another competition: Becoming the first running back selected in this spring’s NFL draft.
“It’s been fun, especially this past year,” Taylor said, standing at the same podium Dobbins used just a few minutes earlier. “I’ve always enjoyed going against those guys just because you come to the Division I level to play against the best guys in the country and O-State is one of those teams that is an elite team. So you have to enjoy that competition.”
Taylor leaves nothing to chance when taking on the opposition.
He worked out with the Badgers track team to become a more explosive runner. He used the JUGS machines to improve as a receiver. He learned to modify his breathing, which he credits for helping him maintain focus, and last year he added yoga to his workout routine because it helped with his flexibility and recovery time.
The results have been staggering.
He’s the only FBS player to rush for more than 6,000 yards in three seasons, the only FBS player with three straight seasons over 1,900 yards and the only Wisconsin player with three top-10 finishes in Heisman Trophy voting. He won the Doak Walker Award each of the past two years, was selected as the Big Ten’s top freshman in 2017 and its best runner the past two seasons.
So here in Indianapolis for the league’s annual scouting combine, Taylor is trying to regain the upper hand.
“I’m trying my best to show I can crack 4.4 (seconds), trying to show I have that long distance speed,” he said, referring to his time in the 40-yard dash. “I know it shows up on film, but they still want to put a number on a sheet of paper.”
If he hits that mark, the 5-foot-10, 226-pound Taylor would go a long way to being the first running back drafted in Las Vegas in April.
The 5-9, 209-pound Dobbins has other plans.
His impressive resume includes being the first Ohio State runner to have a 2,000-yard season and the only one with 1,000-yard seasons as a freshman and sophomore. He’s second on the Buckeyes rushing list, behind two-time Heisman winner Archie Griffin, and he matched Griffin’s school record with three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons. Heck, he even rushed for a school-record 181 yards in his college debut in 2017.
But Dobbins contends his 3-0 record against Wisconsin, which includes two Big Ten championship game victories in Indy and the 2017 game MVP award, give him bragging rights.
“I don’t really see it as a rivalry because he plays on a different team,” he said. “He’s not on defense, so I’m not necessarily going against him. If there is a rivalry, I think I won the better of that because we beat them every time we played them.”
But when the two reunite on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf Friday, things will be different.
The high ankle sprain that knocked Dobbins out of the Buckeyes’ playoff loss to Clemson will keep him out of action this week, too.
Plus, Dobbins and Taylor now find themselves facing another entrant in the mix — 5-8, 209-pound D’Andre Swift of Georgia.
Some projections already list Swift ahead of the Big Ten’s dynamic pair.
“That would be amazing,” Swift said. “It’s every kid’s dream, especially from the city I come from. Not a lot of good ones come out of Philadelphia. I don’t take it lightly. I don’t take it for granted. It would be a blessing just to be among these great backs in this class, just to be mentioned at the top.”
Taylor knows exactly whom he’s up against.
According to his own scouting reports, Dobbins is more physical and faster than some think. And while he appreciates Swift’s versatility, Taylor believes consistency is his best trait.
And over the next two months, Taylor insists, even he’ll tune in to see how this pre-draft competition turns out.
“I love when we’re not playing a game and he (Dobbins) is playing a game, I love watching him,” Taylor said. “If you’re a running back, you love watching other running backs making plays because you’re like ‘wow, I want to make that play,’ or ‘I can make that play, too.’ You’re competing with guys around the country and that’s how you get better.”