HOOVER, Ala. – Tennessee coach Butch Jones, sporting a dapper pinstripe suit affixed with an orange Power T pin, spent a moment on Tuesday regaling a crowd at SEC Media Days with some history. Volunteer history, to be specific.
Jones, entering his fourth season at Tennessee, used part of his opening statement to praise the three Vols who accompanied him to Hoover. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs, linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and cornerback Cam Sutton—all seniors—made the trip, living building blocks of the program Jones has constructed in Knoxville. But Jones chose to single out a telling period from Dobbs’s Tennessee career for the gathered crowd.
“I still remember—we were talking about it on the plane ride here—as a true freshman in his freshman year we played the University of Florida, and [Dobbs] didn't even make the travel squad,” Jones said. “And I believe two games later, he's a starting quarterback playing against Auburn.”
Jones was referring to the 2013 season, and his calendar was a bit off. Dobbs’s first college start actually came against Missouri, five weeks after that trip to Gainesville. But the details of the story didn’t matter. It was a Big Orange parable that made a point, and that was just how far Tennessee has come since Jones’s arrival before that 2013 season. Dobbs, one of the few returning quarterbacks in the SEC, is a prime example of that growth on Rocky Top.
Now Dobbs’s final season in Knoxville could end up being his most impactful. Tennessee will almost certainly be picked to win the SEC East at Media Days, something that hasn’t happened since 2005. The Vols have their most talented roster, top to bottom, since Phillip Fulmer roamed the sidelines of Neyland Stadium. If this isn’t Tennessee’s year to break through, it’s unclear when it will happen under Jones.
But if Vols deliver on the hype, Dobbs will play a crucial role. Despite the quarterback’s overall successes at Tennessee, he is 14-5 as a starter dating back to that 2013 season—Dobbs has yet to evolve into a game-changing passer in the SEC. UT has the pieces it needs elsewhere, from a two-headed monster at running back in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara to a veteran defense that brings back nine starters. But a more efficient passing attack could be the key to Tennessee’s potential as a playoff-caliber program. Add that element, and the Vols could be looking at an SEC title.
It’s no secret that evolution begins with Dobbs, and for the moment Tennessee’s quarterback isn’t worried about the extra pressure. “I know I can win games with my arm,” the aerospace engineering major said. “I’ve won games with my arm in the past.”
That’s partially true. In first full season as a starter in 2015, Dobbs proved a consummate dual-threat quarterback. He scampered for Tennessee quarterback-record 671 rushing yards with 11 rushing touchdowns, throwing for 2,291 yards, 15 scores and five interceptions, as well. In a 38-31 win over Georgia last October he became the third SEC signal-caller in two decades to throw for 300 yards and rush for 100 yards in a game. In the end Dobbs started all 13 contests and helped the Vols win nine games for the first time since 2007.
But Tennessee didn’t air the ball out often last season, which wasn’t always Dobbs’s fault. Thanks to an inconsistent receiving corps and a stacked backfield, the Vols pounded the rock and ranked 11th in the SEC in pass attempts per game (28.5) while leading the league with 47.7 rushing attempts per game. Mike DeBord’s first season as offensive coordinator saw Tennessee call running plays 63 percent of the time. Basically, the strategy worked; Dobbs, Hurd and Kamara helped the Vols average 4.71 yards-per-carry, fifth in the SEC.
When Tennessee did open up the passing game, Dobbs didn’t always flourish. The quarterback finished as just the eight-most efficient passer in the SEC in 2015. Jones, DeBord and the Vols’ staff often seemed hesitant to trust Dobbs in crunch time. The junior attempted just 40 passes in the fourth quarter of games last season, completing 23 while throwing one interception and no touchdowns. Perhaps it’s no surprise Tennessee blew late leads in all four of its losses in 2015.
But what worked last season might not work this fall. Hurd, Kamara and Tennessee’s power fun game isn’t likely to surprise anybody in the SEC. The onus is on the Vols to open up play-calling and get Dobbs more involved with downfield passes. “It’s very important we have to have the ability to push the ball down the field,” Jones said. “When you look at great offenses, they’re able to win the 50-50 balls. They’re able to throw the ball deep and go up and make a play. We’ve really, really focused on that.”
Still, Dobbs knows he has to execute when coaches call his number. He completed just 12 passes of 30 yards or more in 2015, instead relying on swing passes and screens as safety valves. On Tuesday, Dobbs described how the entire offense worked to “get on the same page” during spring, from film sessions to drills. That chemistry, Dobbs hopes, will translate into further trust in the passing game going forward. “I take my whole game personally,” Dobbs said. “I’m my biggest critic. Every time I’m watching film, I try to find out what I can do better.”
Consider Dobbs thankful that Tennessee remains bullish about the passing game’s potential. Leading receiver Von Pearson is gone, but Jones named Josh Malone, Josh Smith and Preston Williams as returnees who were more polished this spring.. Tennessee added 6’6’’ junior college transfer Jeff George during the off-season and slid Jason Croom over to tight end, as well. Plus, Jones said the receiving corps is no longer banged-up. “Unfortunately the last two years we’ve been decimated at the receiver position,” Jones said. “One of the keys for us is to maintain our health through the course of a whole football season.”
On Tuesday Dobbs rocked a stylish three-piece suit in Hoover, complete with orange-and-white checkerboard socks. He showed no emotion when, in front of a gaggle of cameras, a reporter tossed Dobbs’s name and Heisman into the same sentence. “It is cool to be mentioned along side the Heisman,” a stoic Dobbs said. “It is a very prestigious award, and a lot of amazing college football players have won that award. But personally the only thing I can worry about is being the best quarterback for Tennessee.”
This season, for the first time in several years, being the best quarterback for Tennessee could lead to an SEC title. Now Dobbs just has to deliver.