COLUMBUS, Ohio — After wrapping up an in-home visit with La Grange, Texas, running back J.K. Dobbins on Nov. 29, 2016, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer had one more question.
On that November night, three days after beating Michigan in double overtime, all was well for Meyer. There was just one problem: Ohio State running backs coach Tony Alford was leaving at a different time, so Meyer needed to get a ride the next morning to Fayette Regional Air Center, the tiny airport a couple miles west of town. He asked whether La Grange had Uber or a cab service.
“We were like … this is La Grange, Texas,” La Grange coach Matt Kates said. “There ain’t no Ubers, there ain’t no taxis. I said, ‘I guess we’re the Uber.’ My little brother and I got up at 7 o’clock and ran taxi service for Coach Meyer to get him to the airport. We picked him up at the Ramada Inn and got him over to his private jet by 7:30.”
To that point, Ohio State’s recruitment of Dobbins had been a dream. Though Dobbins hails from a small Texas town rarely visited by out-of-state coaches, the Buckeyes found a way to pry him out of the Lone Star State.
When Dobbins committed to Ohio State in March 2016, he did so without having set foot on campus. At that time, the 12 crystal ball projections on his 247Sports profile were split evenly between Texas and Oklahoma. But the Buckeyes not only landed a commitment from Dobbins — they held on to him.
Sitting almost exactly in the middle of a triangle formed by Houston, Austin and San Antonio, La Grange is not an easy place for college coaches to visit. Unless traveling by private jet, the nearest airport is an hour away in Austin. The two Houston airports are about 90 minutes away. Interstate 10 is 20 miles south, and there aren’t a lot of major high schools in the area that recruiters can knock out on one trip.
“To come to La Grange, Texas, you’ve got to be trying to come here,” Kates said.
Most schools outside of Texas don’t try. Going to La Grange means spending valuable hours in the car after flying in from a major city, whereas coaches might be able to visit a dozen schools in a day in Houston or the Dallas-Forth Worth area. It takes a truly special prospect to get coaches off the beaten path.
The last La Grange player before Dobbins to play for a Power 5 school outside of Texas was All-America linebacker Jeff Kelly at Kansas State in the late 1990s, and that was after spending two years at Garden City (Kan.) Community College.
“Obviously our local schools, the Texas schools and Oklahoma schools hit us on a yearly basis. Texas colleges have to do that with Texas high school football — they have to show up, because they never know when you’re going to have one,” Kates said. “Out-of-state people don’t come unless we have somebody. That’s just how it is.
“In my eight years here we’ve signed four Division I football players and [Dobbins is] the only one that signed out of state. We never saw Ohio State here until they were interested in J.K. Dobbins. We never saw Alabama or USC until then. Those schools don’t come to La Grange, Texas, unless we have a kid that warrants it.”
Coaches from across the country started popping up in La Grange after a sophomore season in which Dobbins rushed for 2,243 yards and 37 touchdowns while not even getting the most carries on his team. That parade of assistants included Alford, who quickly made an impression on Dobbins because of the work he put into the recruitment. A relationship was formed over the course of phone calls that came daily from Alford and twice weekly from Meyer. But the Buckeyes also knew that showing up was important.
“Coach Alford was down there a lot,” Dobbins said. “I can’t even tell you how many times he came down there.
“I built a great relationship with Coach Alford, and that played a big part in it. Coach Meyer, too. He always checked up on me every week. That played a big role. There were a lot of schools in other places that tried to do the same thing, but I just felt like Ohio State was genuine. That’s all I wanted, genuine people around me.”
Once the Buckeyes secured a commitment from Dobbins, they still had to hold on to him. His commitment came out of the blue, and schools in Texas and Oklahoma weren’t going to give up with a year left to try to sway him.
“When he committed, I remember everyone going, ‘What?!’ It kind of caught everyone off guard,” TexasAgs.com recruiting analyst Jason Howell said.
Ironically, Dobbins’ biggest misfortune may have been Ohio State’s gain. As noted by Cleveland.com writer Bill Landis, Dobbins suffered a season-ending ankle injury on the first play of his senior season, which meant schools weren’t getting a weekly reminder of just how good he was. As a junior he averaged more than 10 yards a carry and scored 35 touchdowns, even though every team knew where the ball was going.
Simultaneously, the Texas schools were going through their worst seasons in decades. The 2016 season was the first time since 1967 that no Texas school finished in the final AP Top 25. But former Ohio State assistant Tom Herman was hired by Texas that November after Charlie Strong was fired, and he brought along Ohio State quarterbacks coach and ace Texas recruiter Tim Beck after the Buckeyes season ended. The Longhorns didn’t go after Ohio State’s two 5-star commits from Texas, but they took one last swing at Dobbins.
“They did go see J.K.,” Ohio State director of recruiting Mark Pantoni said at his 2017 National Signing Day news conference. “That was no surprise to us.”
Dobbins stuck with his Ohio State pledge. He became a 1,000-yard rusher as a freshman and was named the Most Valuable Player in Ohio State’s first Big Ten title game win since 2014.
“I just knew that this was the best place and none of the schools in Texas would provide the best opportunity for me,” Dobbins said.
But it all happened because the Buckeyes were willing to show up in the first place.