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VOL. 39 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 3, 2015

Vols’ Dobbs embraces the role of ‘CEO quarterback’

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Quarterback Josh Dobbs went 4-1 as a starter last season and was named most valuable player of the Vols’ 45-28 TaxSlayer Bowl win against Iowa.

-- Donald Page | Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

Joshua Dobbs enters his junior season as Tennessee’s undisputed No. 1 quarterback and team leader, the player most responsible for the Vols’ relevance again in SEC football.

Perhaps Dobbs will guide the Vols to an SEC East Division title, or even a league championship. Maybe we will see Dobbs in the NFL one day, or designing a spacecraft for NASA.

None of it would surprise Dobbs’ former head coach at Alpharetta (Ga.) High School, Jason Dukes, now in his second year as head coach at Smiths Station (Ala.) High.

“I’ve actually known Joshua since he was in seventh grade, and it’s not usual to find a young man that is as mature as he is,” Dukes says. “Now, don’t get me wrong. He’s a regular kid. He’s a regular human being, but he is so mature when it comes to being about his business.

“When I say about his business, I say about his business on the field, about his business in the classroom. There’s so many layers to that kid. Not many people know he’s a concert pianist, as well, and he’s a heck of a saxophone player, too.

“There’s a lot of layers to that kid. He is a true Renaissance man when it comes to everything he attempts, he gives everything too, and he’s not satisfied with being average.”

Dobbs has taken the starting quarterback competition out of UT’s spring practice, which is finishing its second week. The Vols will have 15 practices, concluding with the DISH Orange & White Game on April 25 at 3 p.m. CDT at Neyland Stadium.

UT freshmen Quinten Dormady of Boerne (Texas) High School and Jauan Jennings of Murfreesboro Blackman High are vying for the backup quarterback job this spring after enrolling in January.

Meanwhile, Dobbs is doing what he does best – working to improve.

“When Joshua isn’t working on getting better, he’s thinking about working on getting better,” Dukes says. “He’s just that type of guy. In his off time, he’s continuing to work.

“You’re very, very hard pressed to find anyone that can come close to saying anything negative about him. He’s loved by his teammates, he’s loved by his coaches and is respected by all because he’s almost too good to be true, but he is.”

UT fans might see Dobbs in the same light.

No player was more crucial in the Vols’ run to bowl eligibility in 2014 and their victory over Iowa in the Jan. 2 TaxSlayer Bowl.

No player seems more vital to the Vols’ plans in 2015, either.

UT coach Butch Jones made it no secret in his pre-spring press conference.

“It’s just like Josh Dobbs,” Jones says. “We want a CEO quarterback. And what does that mean? We want him to own the football team. We want him to take accountability for everything with our football team and with our offense.”

Dobbs embraces that role, and was reminded about Jones’ comment about him being the CEO.

“There’s always a responsibility to be a leader,” Dobbs said the first week of spring practices. “I’ve always taken that responsibility upon myself. I’ve been a leader since the day I got here, and that will continue throughout my stay here, but my goal is to push this team and lead this team in the spring and into the fall.

“You hold your team accountable. Everything I do and I preach I obviously have to do on and off the field, and I hold them accountable to that as well.

“I’m just holding them accountable and pushing them to be the best players they can be and just staying on them consistently to get the best out of them.”

That isn’t confined to the football field.

Dobbs, a 4.0 student at Alpharetta High, is majoring in Aerospace Engineering, and the aerospace program is a big reason he chose UT.

Dobbs was committed to Arizona State out of high school, but changed his mind before signing day.

His other offers included Mississippi State and Arkansas – the only SEC schools offering – along with Syracuse, Duke, TCU, Illinois and Wake Forest.

Dukes says Dobbs has always placed a priority on academics, and it stems from his parents, Robert and Stephanie.

“That is 100 percent the rearing of his parents,” Dukes adds. “From the very beginning, they put academics first, and even when Josh was making his decision about where to go to school, the place that had his major and the place where he could study what he wanted to, what he had been interested in all his life, that took precedent over pretty much everything else, when it came to his decision he made about where to go to school.”

Dobbs played football, baseball and basketball as a youth, but stopped playing basketball before his sophomore year at the Wesleyan School in Norcross, Ga.

After transferring to Alpharetta as a junior, Dobbs continued playing baseball – he was a pitcher, outfielder and shortstop – and football.

“The thing that was just so impressive about Joshua is that he did both (sports), and he did not allow competition in one thing to keep him from competing at the very highest level at the other,” Dukes explains.

“There was not a time when he was out of town with the baseball team and did not make it back, say for something we had going on with 7 on 7 football. He was a kid that somehow found a way to fit it all in.”

Dukes chuckles when told Dobbs sat in on Jones’ interview with Mike DeBord, who was hired in February to replace Mike Bajakian as the Vols’ offensive coordinator.

But it didn’t surprise Dukes that Dobbs was invited to the interview.

“It goes back to the fact that Joshua is a kind of person that you trust his thought process,” Dukes says.

“When I coached him, when he came to the sideline, we would ask him, ‘Why did you do what you just did?’ OK, and the answer, it’s almost uncanny, the answer was almost always right.

“He’s going to tell you the truth, he’s going to tell you what he thinks, and his thought process is well beyond his years.”

5 Things to Watch This Spring

1: Backup QB Competition

Jennings (6-4, 200 pounds) and Dormady (6-4, 200) both enrolled in January and will get plenty of reps all spring behind Dobbs. Both were four-star recruits out of high school.

“That’s going to be a great battle,” Jones says. “I think Quinten has done a very, very good job of all the quarterback intangibles. He’s worked exceptionally hard. Jauan has done a great job as well, but I think Jauan is a little bit behind in terms of the quarterback intangibles.

New Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord talkes with his starting quarterback during spring practice at Haslam Field.

-- Donald Page | Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

“He’s a great athlete, he’s very driven, he’s very competitive, so I think he’ll continue to progress with the amount of repetitions through the course of the spring.”

Freshman signee Sheriron Jones (6-2, 182) of Rancho Verde High in Perris, Calif., arrives on campus in June and will play catch-up with Jennings and Dormady for the job as Dobbs’ backup. Jones de-committed from Florida last December and chose to sign with Tennessee.

2: O-Line Development

UT’s offensive line looks for a bounce-back season after a rough year in 2014, and its progression this spring will be crucial.

Only one full-time starter from the line is gone, January graduate Jacob Gilliam at left tackle.

However, Gilliam’s backup at left tackle, sophomore Coleman Thomas, was dismissed from all UT team activities March 26 when he was arrested on a theft charge on campus. Thomas started five games in 2014 when Gilliam was injured.

Sophomore Jashon Robertson of Nashville’s Montgomery Bell Academy started all 13 games at right guard and senior Marcus Jackson of Vero Beach (Fla.) High started 12 games at left guard. Both of their backups, Austin Sanders and Dylan Wiesman, also return.

Robertson was chosen to the All-SEC team and earned two Freshman All-America honors.

At right tackle, senior Kyler Kerbyson of Knoxville Catholic returns after starting 13 games, and sophomore Brett Kendrick of Christian Academy of Knoxville returns after backing up Kerbyson and starting two games at left tackle.

Senior Mack Crowder of Bristol’s Tennessee High started 11 games at center as a junior. Wiesman, who played at Cincinnati’s Colerain High, started the other two games at center.

“It will be an ongoing theme as we continue to progress, is finding the best five individuals (on the line),” Jones says. “Kyler gives us great flexibility up front. He can play guard, he can play tackle, but again, for us it is finding the right mix, the best five that plays winning football together.”

UT’s X-factor on the line appears to be Dontavius Blair, who arrived from Garden City (Kan.) Community College last fall as the No. 6 JUCO offensive lineman in the nation as rated by ESPN. However, Blair never got in good shape, couldn’t crack the rotation and was redshirted, and this spring is huge for him.

“The strength gains that he’s made and his overall conditioning level have been impressive,” offensive line coach Don Mahoney says of Blair.

“I think a lot of times last year he was just fighting it in practice. Instead of just being able to focus on schemes and techniques and fundamentals, he was battling his own physical conditioning. He’s in better shape, he’s stronger, and his sense of urgency has been great.”

Don’t be surprised if January enrollee Jack Jones of Murfreesboro Oakland High makes an impact this spring and by the fall works his way into the O-line rotation.

Chance Hall of Northside High in Roanoke, Va., is another offensive lineman who arrived in January, but is limited this spring. Hall sat out the 2014 high school season with a torn Achilles tendon.

3: Alvin Kamara

Running back Alvin Kamara.

-- Andrew Bruckse | Tennessee Athletics/Utsports.Com

UT doesn’t have much depth at running back, but it has a great one-two punch in sophomore Jalen Hurd (6-3, 227) and junior Alvin Kamara (5-11, 195).

In short, Hurd is a bruising running back, and Kamara is a shifty speedster.

Hurd, the state’s No. 1 prospect as a senior at Hendersonville Beech High in 2013-14, is non-contact this spring after having offseason surgery on his right shoulder.

But there’s no question what Hurd can do when he gets the football. He had a team-high 899 yards as a true freshman and ran for 122 yards in the TaxSlayer Bowl, the most rushing yards for a UT runner in a bowl game since Travis Henry ran for 180 yards in the 2001 Cotton Bowl.

UT fans can’t wait to see Kamara in action, and for good reason. He signed with Alabama out of Norcross (Ga.) High School, was redshirted in 2013, and became a five-star recruit in 2014 at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.

Jones knows he’s got a special combination at running back.

“I think they complement each other with their different styles of play,” Jones said after the Vols’ first practice in pads last Saturday.

“You look at any great program or any great offense, they have more than one marquee back. They have a stable of backs, and we haven’t had that luxury here.

“We are still lacking depth at the running back position, but I see Jalen and Alvin really feeding off each other.”

Five running backs from the 2014 roster are gone: Marlin Lane, Devrin Young, Derrell Scott, Justus Pickett, and Deanthonie Summerhill. Of those, only Lane (319 yards, 86 carries) had significant carries. Lane, Young, and Summerhill were seniors.

Pickett, a walk-on transfer from Maryland, was ruled academically ineligible before the TaxSlayer Bowl, and Jones declared him “no longer a part of the football team.”

Scott, a freshman in 2014, played in two games (40 yards) and opted to transfer to East Carolina. He’s from Havelock, N.C.

Freshman John Kelly of Oak Park High in Detroit arrives in the summer. Kelly (5-10, 200) is the No. 2 running back in Michigan, according to Scout.com.

4: Wide Receiver Recovery

UT began the 2014 preseason loaded at the wide receiver position, but it was decimated by injuries from the get-go.

Junior Cody Blanc, former Knoxville Central High standout, ruptured an Achilles on the first day of preseason camp and was lost for the season.

Other UT receivers followed with season-ending injuries: Von Pearson (ankle), Josh Smith (ankle), Marquez North (foot, shoulder), and Jason Croom (wrist, knee). Croom missed the TaxSlayer Bowl with a knee injury.

Still more receivers spent the season nicked up.

North is limited in spring practice, but the rest are back at it.

“They need to stay healthy,” Jones says of his receivers.

“We need to get a full spring football out of them. We have seen glimpses of what they can do. Now we need to see it on a consistent basis. All of the individuals have worked exceptionally hard this off-season.”

UT returns its top nine receivers/tight ends (in order of receiving yards in 2014): Alton Howard, Pearson, North, Croom, Josh Malone, Ethan Wolf (tight end), Josh Smith, Johnathan Johnson, and Alex Ellis (tight end).

Jones says sophomore tight end Neiko Creamer “had a very productive off-season” and expects him to carry it over throughout the spring. Creamer’s father, Andre, played defensive back/punt returner at UT from 1985-87.

Vic Wharton, a freshman in 2014 from Independence High in Thompson’s Station, is transferring to the University of California.

5: The DeBord Factor

Jones didn’t go for a home-run hire when Mike Bajakian left for the job as the quarterbacks coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It was a smart move by Jones.

Instead, Jones went with a safe hire in Mike DeBord, who spent the last two years in athletic administration at Michigan.

DeBord was head coach at Central Michigan for four seasons (2000-03) when Jones was an assistant, and now the tables are turned.

“I mean, he’s the boss,” DeBord said during the first week of spring practices.

DeBord was hired with the understanding he would keep the same terminology and schemes as his predecessor so there won’t be any overhaul in the Vols’ playbook.

UT fans remember 2008 when then-UT coach Phillip Fulmer hired Dave Clawson to replace David Cutcliffe as offensive coordinator, and Clawson revamped the offense. It was a disaster.

Not this time. DeBord likes the direction of the offense just fine.

“I really believe we’re further along than I ever anticipated,” DeBord said the first week of practice, “and what I mean is technique, knowledge, scheme.”

Dave Link is a freelance writer.

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