KNOXVILLE – Joshua Dobbs isn’t a typical SEC starting quarterback.
Start with the obvious – he’s a true freshman playing in a league at a spot normally reserved for veterans. Only two players – Dobbs and Auburn’s Jeremy Johnson – have started a game for an SEC team at quarterback as a true freshman this season.
Dobbs is the only one in that situation to start a game against an SEC opponent, a top-10 Missouri squad on the road no less.
But there’s more to the native of Alpharetta, Ga., that marks him as different from many of his SEC counterparts. In an era of growing cynicism about the concept of the student-athlete, Dobbs is somewhat of a throwback to the original definition of that term. Yes, he shows potential on the football field and he also is a high achiever in the classroom.
He helps his teammates with their homework. He hopes to build and design airplanes someday. He might even fly them in his “spare time.” Coach Butch Jones has said he may have a photographic memory.
Some of Dobbs’ first comments at UT read more like an eager honor’s student than an SEC starting signal caller.
“I enjoy math classes, and luckily coming in I had taken all of my other classes that weren’t math,” Dobbs said in his first media appearance since enrolling at UT this past summer. “Now I can focus in on my math courses for my major. I’m enjoying school and doing well right now.”
A 4.0 student in high school and now in the academically-rigorous major of aeronautical engineering at UT, Dobbs comes across as more fifth-year senior than a fresh-out-of-high-school first-year player.
“It’s evident – he’s very articulate,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian, who helped recruit Dobbs, a former Arizona State commitment, to Tennessee. “He thinks before he speaks. He’s a very sharp guy and that becomes evident the first time you meet him. He makes a great first impression."
Dobbs isn’t the only smart, well-spoken player in the SEC or even on the team. But his combination of smarts and potential on the football field are a rare find. Like most freshmen, there have been and will be some growing pains as he adjusts from life as a high school quarterback to an SEC starter.
He was responsible for three turnovers at Missouri – two interceptions and one lost fumble.
“Every time I step on the field I just have to make sure I’m being smart, protecting the football,” Dobbs said. “Coach always says that football holds our dreams, goals and aspirations. So we just have to be smart with the football and just finish drives as a team. Just cut down on the little mistakes and focus in on the details.”
But with the bad came plenty of good in his first six quarters of action since taking over for the injured Justin Worley in the second half of the Alabama game two weeks ago. Even in a 31-3 loss at Missouri, Dobbs was extremely productive.
He accounted for approximately 75 percent of UT’s offense, including 240 yards through the air and 45 yards on the ground – the best rushing effort for a Tennessee quarterback since Tee Martin in 1999. Still, Dobbs knows he’ll take some of the blame anytime the entire offense doesn’t click.
“Being the quarterback, people look to you when things go wrong, so you just get used to it,” he said. “Being quarterback, it requires being a leader.”
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the job will be Dobbs’ for the rest of the regular season. He’ll have his chances to show what he’s learned from his first tastes of SEC action.
After all, on the field or off the field, he rarely makes the same mistakes twice.
“He’s very even-keeled,” added Bajakian. “He’s almost unflappable sometimes. I think that’s a good trait for a quarterback to have.”
• Out: QB Justin Worley, TE Alex Ellis, TE Joseph Ayres, WR Ryan Jenkins, DT Allan Carson
• Non-contact jersey: TE A.J. Branisel, S Brian Randolph, WR Pig Howard
• Jones wasn’t quite the insult comedian that he was on Tuesday, but he had a few good lines. He told Tennessee’s sports information staff to start a poll on the team’s website as to who was the softest player on the team, guard Alex Bullard or guard Zach Fulton. He also questioned why they were practicing third-and-1 situations, saying the Vols should probably just punt in that situation on Saturday.
• Jones changed the practice script without notice and surprised the team by starting practice off with some live, 11-on-11 work near the goal line. The first team converted a 2-point conversion on a quick out thrown by quarterback Josh Dobbs to receiver Johnathon Johnson. The second team scored as well on a pass from Riley Ferguson to tight end A.J. Branisel.
Both units failed to score when the ball was moved back to the 5. Dobbs’ pass to Jason Croom was incomplete and Nathan Peterman couldn’t connect with Josh Smith for the second team.
• Running backs Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal continue to split starting reps. Rajion Neal was the first back to work with the first team during walk-throughs, but Lane got the first chance during the goal-line work. Neal is listed as the starter, but it seems that either has a realistic shot to start against Auburn on Saturday.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee athletics for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter @DanielNooga