Knoxville, Tenn.–Joshua Dobbs loves to compete, even with his own mother.
Dobbs, from Alpharetta, Ga. (about 30 minutes from downtown Atlanta), grew up in a household that was very serious about a lot of things, especially academics. His mother, Stephanie, missed only one day of school in 12 years (she had a fever in the second grade and was kept home out of caution). Thus, at a very young age, Joshua Dobbs was challenged.
“It just became like a game to me,” Dobbs said. “I just wanted to prove that I could do what my mother did.”
Comedian Woody Allen once wrote that “Eighty percent of life is just showing up.” Well, Dobbs kept showing up at school day after day.
Ironically, the biggest challenge to his goal of perfect school attendance was when he became a recruited football player and started to schedule official visits. The college coaches wanted him to catch a Friday morning flight to get the campus visit started as early as possible. That’s what most guys did.
But not Dobbs.
“At our school you had to be there until 11:50 a.m. in order to be counted as present for the day,” said Dobbs. “So I always had to take afternoon flights and a bunch of times I was running through the airport just trying to get there. Some times I couldn’t get there until Friday night.”
In February 2013 Dobbs was selected to the Team USA National Football Team that would play in the International Bowl. That honor would require him to miss five days of school. He turned it down.
“I was so close to my goal (perfect attendance) that I just couldn’t give it up,” said Dobbs.
Now, after a young lifetime filled with showing up, Dobbs is a rising junior in the Honors Program at the University of Tennessee. He is studying Aerospace Engineering. Among his classes this semester are “Mechanics of Materials” which studies the stress level of different materials used to build things that fly. He’s getting a minor in Business because he not only wants to know HOW to build things that fly, he wants to OWN the business that builds them.
“The best thing I can say about Joshua is that he’s special,” said Butch Jones, Tennessee’s third-year head coach. “Guys like him don’t come around that often.”
And the football thing? Well, that’s worked out pretty well, too.
After starting four games at quarterback as a freshman in 2013, Dobbs began the 2014 season at No. 3 on the depth chart behind senior Justin Worley and redshirt sophomore Nathan Peterman. Worley was knocked out for the season in the seventh game against Ole Miss and Peterman started the next game against No. 4 Alabama. After Peterman struggled in Tennessee’s first two possessions and the Vols fell behind 13-0, Dobbs was inserted into the game.
He would not come out for the rest of the season.
Dobbs ran for 75 yards, passed for 192 more and rallied Tennessee from a 27-0 deficit to a very respectable 34-20 loss against a team that would finish the regular season ranked No. 1.
In his first start against South Carolina on Nov. 1, Dobbs led a furious comeback with two touchdowns in the final five minutes to tie the game and send it into overtime. The Vols won 45-42. In that game Dobbs had three rushing touchdowns, two passing touchdowns, and 467 yards of total offense.
A star was born.
With Dobbs starting at quarterback for the last five games of the 2014 season, the Volunteers went 4-1 (the only loss was to SEC East champ Missouri), including a 45-28 win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl in Jacksonville.
“Josh proved that he was our quarterback,” said Jones. “It was exciting to see him grow right before our eyes.”
With Dobbs, who averaged 203 yards passing and 79 yards rushing in his five starts, returning along with 17 other starters, Tennessee is starting to get some buzz as a potential dark horse to win the SEC East championship in 2015.
“There is a lot of excitement in this building,” Dobbs said as we sat in the palatial Anderson Training Center at Tennessee. “We have been building towards this for the past two years. But now we have to translate all that hard work into wins. We have to get better.”
This was the third spring practice for Tennessee under Jones. His “brick-by-brick” culture of building this program is fully entrenched. The Vols have signed back-to-back recruiting classes ranked in the top five. There is a lot of young talent here. The only question is whether Tennessee is mentally ready to make the transition from a team that WANTS to win to a team that is EXPECTED to win.
There is a big difference.
In Jones’s first season (2013) Tennessee went 5-7 (2-6 SEC). The Vols lost to Georgia 34-31 in overtime and to Vanderbilt 14-10.
Last season Tennessee again lost by three to Georgia (35-32), by one to Florida (10-9) and by eight to SEC East champ Missouri (29-21) in Knoxville.
“With each game we get a little more confident and learn there is a fine line between winning and losing in this conference,” said Jones. “The competition in this conference is so tough that first you must learn how to compete and put yourself in a position to win. Then you have to learn how to win.”
A year ago the Volunteers did not return a single starter on the offensive or defensive lines. And it showed.
The offensive line gave up 43 quarterback sacks. Only five teams in the FBS gave up more. To be fair, the Vols gave up substantially fewer sacks (11) in the five games that the mobile Dobbs started at quarterback. Now everybody is back up front and now there is depth.
The running back position, which featured freshman Jalen Hurd (899 yards) last season, has been strengthened with the addition of junior college transfer Alvin Kamara. Kamara began his career at Alabama and ran for 1,469 yards last season at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas. Kamara, one of the state of Georgia’s best high school players in 2012, will give Tennessee another big play maker on that side of the ball.
Tennessee may have the deepest set of wide receivers in the country led by Alton “Pig” Howard (54 catches), Marquez North (30 catches), Josh Malone (23 catches), and Jason Croom (21 catches). To that group Tennessee has added five-star wide receiver Preston Williams of Hampton, Ga.
There will be one change on that side of the ball as veteran coach Mike DeBord, a long-time confidant of Butch Jones, comes to Tennessee from Michigan as the new offensive coordinator. DeBord was the head coach at Central Michigan from 2000-03 and had Jones as a member of his staff.
“Mike is somebody I know and trust and who will bring a lot to our offense,” said Jones, who had an opening when Mike Bajakian left for the Tampa Bay Bucs. “I’m really excited he is with us.”
Defensively, Tennessee returns two very good players on the edge in senior Curt Maggitt and sophomore Derek Barnett, who combined for 21 sacks last season. The problem with the Tennessee defense in 2014 was stopping the run between the tackles. But help is on the way from an ultra-talented freshman class
Four-star DT Shy Tuttle (6-3, 315), whose uncle Perry played on Clemson’s 1981 national championship team, is expected to play early. So is Khalil McKenzie, a five-star out of California. McKenzie’s dad, Reggie, is a former star for the Vols and is currently the general manager of the Oakland Raiders.
“We have some young guys coming in who can make a difference,” said Jones. “We need for them to make a quick transition.”
Tennessee will quickly find out if it is ready to take the next step. Oklahoma comes to Knoxville on Sept. 12. After a date with Western Carolina, The Volunteers have consecutive games with with Florida, Arkansas, and Georgia. After a week off, Tennessee goes to Alabama.
“Last year we learned how to get ourselves in a position to win,” said Jones. “Our comeback against South Carolina proved we could win. Now we have to do that week after week in the SEC. There are no breathers.”
UP NEXT: TEXAS A&M