TaxSlayer Bowl: Tennessee’s Dobbs a cerebral, confident playmaker

Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is a dual-threat quarterback whose cerebral yet electric playing style has helped lift the Tennessee football program.

JACKSONVILLE, Florida — Perhaps the only knock on Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs over the last month and a half is that, when the fall semester finally wrapped up, he brought down the quarterbacks’ collective grade-point average.

“What’d you have, a 3.7?” head coach Butch Jones asked Dobbs at Wednesday’s final TaxSlayer Bowl press conference.

Dobbs mumbled a response back. Jones smiled. “Maybe a 3.3,” the coach said.

After the semester, Jones told Dobbs, an aerospace engineering major, to read his class schedule aloud at a team meeting. Very quickly, the rest of the team understood why the grades weren’t all As.

“Nobody wanted any part of that [schedule],” Jones said.

His teammates can probably forgive Dobbs for the still-pretty-good grades on his report card. After all, the sophomore is the primary reason Tennessee is enjoying the Florida sunshine and preparing to play Iowa in the 70th TaxSlayer Bowl at EverBank Field.

Dobbs first appeared against Alabama, on Oct. 25, after Nathan Peterman manned the first two series (Justin Worley, who started the season’s first seven games for Tennessee, suffered a shoulder injury and had surgery in early November, ending his season). By the time Dobbs entered the game, the Crimson Tide had a 13-0 lead.

He held his own, completing 19-of-32 passes for 192 yards and two scores. He ran for another 75 yards on 19 carries, all on the nation’s 10th-ranked defense. With the Alpharetta, Georgia, native in the game, the Volunteers were only outscored by a single point (Alabama won the game, 34-20).

Dobbs started the next four games, winning three and ensuring Tennessee its first bowl appearance since 2010. In the five games he played this season, he was responsible for 14 touchdowns and more than 1,500 total yards of offense.

“Joshua presents a very unique skill set,” Jones said. “Obviously, his skill is in running the football but also some different things in the passing game.

“He’s very competitive. He’s very, very cerebral. He wasn’t playing early [in the season], but he gained some valuable repetitions last year, being the starting quarterback at the University of Tennessee and understanding all the different dynamics that come with being the quarterback at Tennessee.”

A year ago, Dobbs became just the eighth true freshman to become Tennessee’s starting quarterback when he, again, started the final four games of the 2013 season. The Volunteers lost three of those four, and Dobbs struggled to have success both on the ground and through the air.

“He prepared every week as though he was the starter,” Jones said. “He defines perseverance and resiliency. I believe that comes from his mother and his father. He’s had a great upbringing. He’s very prideful. …

“But I think that’s a tribute to him, of being able to answer the call when you’re called upon. A lot of people quit when success is right there. It’s easy to quit and give in, and he never did that. Now, he’s reaping the rewards.”

There’s been a learning curve even after the success, though. Dobbs said he has had to learn not only how to lead but how to lead the right way. His words carry more impact now, which also gives him confidence.

“I do feel like it’s more my offense this year,” Dobbs said. “Last year, I came in late in the season. But this season, I’ve been a constant leader. I’ve done a good job of leading my teammates, and I need to continue to do that.”

His next test will be against Iowa’s 18th-ranked defense. He said Phil Parker’s unit is stingy and disciplined, but the Hawkeyes know Dobbs has the kind of skill that has killed them this year.

“Maryland and Minnesota come to mind right away,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Hopefully, we’ll do a little better job defending the quarterback. But that’s really what’s been going on with Tennessee.

“To me, the turning point came during those last four games, and it’s no coincidence that that’s when [Dobbs] took over. They won three out of four games. They come into this game with a lot of momentum. He throws and runs, and that’s a challenge. We’ll really have to be at our best if we’re going to have a chance.”

If Dobbs executes Tennessee’s plan flawlessly, it could be another long day for the Hawkeye defense. And even if there are hiccups along the way, his teammates and coaches are confident that he can lead them to one more victory this season.

“He’s taken control, and they believe in him,” Jones said. “And that’s the biggest thing — they believe in him.”

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