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10 Questions for 2015 #4 - The Zenith of Josh Dobbs

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Tennessee's quarterback has a story worth telling in a season that will be worth remembering if he can simply continue to progress.

Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

Behold the power of the narrative.

Four of the top six passers in the SEC graduated, and one of the remaining two plays for Kentucky.  Four of the five highest ranked SEC teams in the coaches' poll are replacing their quarterback, and the fifth is in the midst of an open competition in Baton Rouge.  In this league right now there's Dak Prescott, and then there's white space.

Some are predicting system guys to fill that void, the names we've seen like Kyle Allen and the ones we assume like Jeremy Johnson.  Some default to Maty Mauk, who's had his parking validated at the Georgia Dome two years in a row.  Others to Brandon Allen, who leads a team ranked even higher than Mizzou.  But neither will be the focal point of the offenses they'll manage.

And so the name with the most recognition after Prescott right now has started just nine games for a program that hasn't won eight games in eight years.  And yet, when you combine the void of experience at quarterback in the SEC with the brief flashes we saw last year, and throw in a unique and engaging academic story, you don't just get a potential All-SEC quarterback.  You get the 16h best odds to win the Heisman Trophy.

The last time Tennessee reached the heights it hopes to attain this season, Tim Tebow won the Heisman Trophy.  He started the season as a more proven Heisman candidate than starting quarterback, but his play and his narrative quickly took hold in one of the wildest college football seasons of the BCS era.  I think we're all aware a quarterback from Tennessee is never going to win the Heisman.  But there's a buzz about Dobbs that comes from more than just what he's done on the field.  Have you heard Josh Dobbs is an aerospace engineering major?  Did you know Brian Williams has lost weight and Emmanuel Negedu speaks five languages?

Who Dobbs is and what he pursues off the field is a benefit to Tennessee, both the football program and the university.  This part of the narrative gives Dobbs that something extra, a story all parties involved will be eager to tell.  Dobbs is also positioned to be the guy at the helm when Tennessee gets to the proverbial "back".  In his opportunity to do so, he has a chance to be loved and then remembered by all who wear orange in a special way.  You have to be gone to need to get back; Dobbs' chance to be part of the redemptive story here gives him an opportunity guys like Heath Shuler and Peyton Manning didn't have.  Dobbs can be more in the Tony Robinson or Andy Kelly mold, quarterbacks who achieved far less personal success (to be fair, so has 99.9% of the quarterback population compared to Manning) but are remembered just as long and in some ways even more fondly, because they were the guys who took Tennessee back to the mountaintop.  Or, for our younger readers, Dobbs could be the first guy to do it.

But for the story to find its happy ending, Tennessee has to actually get there.  And one of the most important questions for the Vols' ability to do just that centers on Dobbs' ability to move from good to great.

We mentioned Jeremy Johnson and Kyle Allen up there because Auburn and A&M have done it well enough long enough now for us to believe whoever lines up for them is going to produce.  Perhaps Tennessee's offense will explode under Dobbs and then Dormardy or Jones or Guarantano, and then we can start assuming as well.  But because we haven't seen what a Butch Jones offense can do at full strength, questions remain.  And because we'd never seen something like what Dobbs did at South Carolina last year, our excitement about the answers centers on his shoulders.

The good news is, Dobbs isn't looking to ascend a year or two ahead of his teammates.  This isn't at all a good quarterback on a bad team situation.  If the Vol offense arrives by consistently doing what it did to South Carolina and Iowa, it will arrive together with two stud running backs, a plethora of wide receivers, and - in the one offensive question more important than this one - a much-improved offensive line.

So, how can we measure progress for our junior quarterback?  Last year Dobbs didn't get enough snaps to qualify for many of the SEC's passing leaderboards, but you would've found his numbers here:

  • Completion Percentage:  63.3%, 3rd
  • Yards Per Attempt:  6.8, 9th
  • TD/INT ratio:  1.5, 11th
  • Total Offense Per Game:  279 ypg, 2nd
Dobbs' 469 rushing yards were third best among SEC quarterbacks despite appearing in only six games.  His completion percentage topped 70% against Kentucky and Iowa, the latter (76.2%) being the best performance by a Vol starter against an FBS opponent since Tyler Bray vs Cincinnati in 2011.

Part of me wonders if Dobbs' lower TD/INT ratio (nine touchdowns, six interceptions) are simply a byproduct of play-calling in the red zone and a general lack of splash plays.  Tennessee averaged 37 points in Dobbs' five starts, so it's not like points were an issue.  He'll need to curb his interception-every-game average, which is one of the most tangible ways he can improve.

Tennessee's offense went into a shell at Vanderbilt, protecting a lead Vanderbilt's offense wasn't capable of taking from them.  I'm more interested in his numbers from the Missouri game, facing a good defense and a great pass rush in a meaningful contest for both teams.  Dobbs was accurate, completing 24 of 37 passes, but not as efficient as the Vols gained just 195 yards through the air.  And he was sacked six times, curbing his rushing numbers to just a net gain of 13 yards.  Again, much of Dobbs' progression here will be on the offensive line as well.  He faced an Alabama team that was some degree of unprepared for him, decimated an above average Iowa defense, and did plenty against poor defensive units from South Carolina and Kentucky.  He's never taken a snap against Florida or Georgia.  What he and the Vol offense can and can't do against Oklahoma in week two will be incredibly telling.

Perhaps the best news about Dobbs is he answered the clutch question in his very first start last year.  Tennessee's offense played with confidence late last fall and certainly should again in a few weeks because it saw its quarterback lead them from two scores down with five minutes to play to win on the road.  And in an offense that isn't designed to hit a bunch of home runs and can simultaneously rely on Jalen Hurd and (we assume) Alvin Kamara, there is a freedom about Dobbs to simply run the offense.  Usually phrasing like that suggests a talent deficiency at quarterback, but in this case it could suggest a well-oiled machine that beats opponents consistently without the need for its quarterback to beat opponents spectacularly and by himself.  Dobbs doesn't have to be a Heisman candidate for Tennessee to have a big year.  But simply running the system, if it does the best versions of what we realistically hope it could, can give him the makings of a Heisman campaign.

Combine even average progression from Dobbs in an offense that scores plenty of points with some of the big wins this team believes are out there, and our quarterback could find national publicity following him all year.  Dobbs already has a great story.  He could become a great quarterback by simply effectively running an offense that has a chance to do the same.  If we see even slightly fewer interceptions and even slightly increased productivity, Tennessee could be in for a great year.