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In Praise of Josh Dobbs, Passing Quarterback

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Virginia Tech v Tennessee Photo by Michael Shroyer/Getty Images

One of the biggest casualties of Tennessee’s disappointing 8-4 finish: we’re underrating an all-time great year from a senior quarterback who belongs on that list.

Josh Dobbs was already Tennessee’s career leader in rushing yardage for a quarterback. With one game to play, he also leads Team 120 in rushing with 713 yards to 565 for Alvin Kamara and 560 for John Kelly. He will leave Knoxville with a large statistical gap between himself and Jimmy Streater or Condredge Holloway in that department.

As a passer, the jury was still out on Dobbs coming into this season. Tennessee didn’t go downfield very often in 2015; Dobbs generally made good decisions in throwing only five interceptions but also only 15 touchdowns. Would the Vols give Dobbs the green light to take more chances in the passing game in 2016?

The answer, by choice and circumstance, was an emphatic yes. And Josh Dobbs turned in an incredible performance.

With the bowl left to play, Josh Dobbs has thrown for 2,655 yards this season. It’s been enough to surpass Andy Kelly on the career leaderboard, moving him into the top five with Manning, Clausen, Ainge, and Bray. That number is also currently 11th-best for a single season at UT, and is likely to jump to at least ninth in the bowl game, surpassing Jonathan Crompton’s 2009 total. That would mean Dobbs would again be looking up at only Manning, Clausen, Ainge, and Bray for single season yardage.

Yardage is where this conversation always starts, but it’s not always the best indicator of performance. Dobbs currently averages 26.6 pass attempts per game. In their final seasons Erik Ainge averaged 37.1, Tyler Bray 37.6, Peyton Manning 39.8, Casey Clausen 31.7. Dobbs was never going to catch that crowd in total yardage.

But if you look a little closer inside the numbers, Dobbs was as good or better than many of their best years throwing the ball.

We use yards per attempt as our go-to stat in evaluating a quarterback’s passing performance. Here are the Tennessee’s quarterbacks to average more than eight yards per attempt in the last 25 years:

QUARTERBACK YEAR YPA
Peyton Manning 1996 8.7
Erik Ainge 2006 8.6
Casey Clausen 2001 8.4
Josh Dobbs 2016 8.3
Heath Shuler 1993 8.3
Tee Martin 1998 8.1
Tyler Bray 2012 8.0
Peyton Manning 1997 8.0

I tend to use Andy Kelly as a starting point for these conversations, as he led both the genesis of the Vol "decade" of dominance from 1989-2001 and because passing numbers have shot up in the last 25 years. Here are the Tennessee quarterbacks who completed 60+% of their passes in that time:

QUARTERBACK YEAR PCT
Erik Ainge 2006 67.0
Heath Shuler 1993 64.6
Peyton Manning 1995 64.2
Casey Clausen 2001 64.1
Peyton Manning 1996 63.9
Josh Dobbs 2016 63.3
Andy Kelly 1991 63.2
Erik Ainge 2007 62.6
Peyton Manning 1997 60.2

The number with the biggest chance to rise for Dobbs is touchdown passes. Despite throwing the ball far less, he shows up on the list of Vol quarterbacks to throw 25+ touchdown passes in a single season:

QUARTERBACK YEAR TD PASSES
Peyton Manning 1997 36
Tyler Bray 2012 34
Erik Ainge 2007 31
Jonathan Crompton 2009 27
Casey Clausen 2003 27
Josh Dobbs 2016 26
Heath Shuler 1993 25

Who shows up on all three lists, having single seasons with 8+ yards per attempt, 60+ completion percentage, and 25+ touchdowns? Peyton Manning's Heisman runner-up year in 1997, Heath Shuler's Heisman runner-up year in 1993...and Josh Dobbs.

Now consider the quality of competition. Dobbs faced four of the Top 16 defenses in passing yards per attempt allowed and half of Tennessee's schedule was in the Top 40 in yards per play allowed.

Now throw in all that running stuff.

This has been an all-time great year for Josh Dobbs. If the Vols don't lose to South Carolina and Vanderbilt we're talking about way more than just first-team All-SEC for him. When we turn our eyes to the future and think, "Hey, we'll have a better passer next year,"...I wouldn't be so sure about that.

The finish was disappointing, but Dobbs' performance ensures he will leave more memories than just being the guy who helped get Tennessee back in the national conversation. And his impact on this program and the community off-the-field will continue to be a positive for Tennessee for years to come.

If you're looking for a reason to care about this bowl game, getting to watch Josh Dobbs play quarterback for Tennessee one last time should be high on your list.