Joshua Dobbs isn’t Dak Prescott 2.0, but he showed in Mobile why he’s good enough to get chance in NFL

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Joshua Dobbs isn’t Dak Prescott 2.0, but he showed in Mobile why he’s good enough to get chance in NFL

Joshua Dobbs isn’t Dak Prescott 2.0, but he showed in Mobile why he’s good enough to get chance in NFL

By John Crist
January 30, 2017

MOBILE, Ala. — The “Dak Prescott Effect” is a real thing. At the Senior Bowl, practically every team in the NFL was looking for the next Dak Prescott.

There’s nothing more valuable in the pro game than a starting quarterback on a rookie contract, especially if said starting quarterback wasn’t a first-round draft pick. In a salary-cap league, that frees up a lot of dollars to be used elsewhere.

Prescott went in Round 4 to the Dallas Cowboys last spring, and only after the franchise failed to trade up for other QBs with higher grades. Once Pro Bowler Tony Romo got injured in the preseason, Prescott took over and directed America’s Team to a 13-3 record and the No. 1 seed in the NFC. His name is mentioned in the MVP conversation.

Joshua Dobbs is a spread signal caller from the SEC, just like Prescott was. As a result, Dobbs is being scrutinized accordingly by scouts.

Sound familiar? “One of the SEC’s most dangerous dual-threat quarterbacks” … “mobility and size to power through would-be tacklers” … “arm talent to push the ball downfield through the air” … “leadership” … “involvement and volunteerism.”

How about this? “Work in progress as a passer” … “loses accuracy when his feet are not set” … “tends to predetermine some throws” … “has not shown the consistency to lead his team through the air” … “a lot of evaluators aren’t sold quite yet” … “has the bad habit of locking onto his target” … “missing open reads downfield.”

That evaluation wasn’t for Dobbs. It was for Prescott, written by Rob Rang and Dane Brugler at CBSSports.com, who are both highly respected.

Rang and Brugler were hardly unique in their assessment of Prescott. Every club in the league took a pass on him multiple times before Dallas finally called his name at No. 135 overall. Don’t give the Cowboys too much credit for the selection.

Before Prescott suited up on Sunday, he was being compared to Tim Tebow. Playing at Mississippi State for Dan Mullen — he was Tebow’s offensive coordinator at Florida — it was only natural to connect those dots. But now Prescott looks like a young Ben Roethlisberger for what he was able to do as a rookie.

Like Prescott, Dobbs was just as productive at Tennessee as a player as he was likable off the field in Knoxville as a citizen.

A case can be made that Prescott’s success is both a good and bad thing for Dobbs. Good because it proves a spread QB from the SEC who’s not a Cam Newton-like freak can do this. Bad because expectations have now been lifted a bit.

There isn’t a soul alive — from the most experienced scout to the most cowbell-rattling Bulldogs fan — who anticipated Prescott being this effective in Year 1. Everyone assumed he needed some time to acclimate to the NFL, learn how to take a snap from center and school himself on pro-style route concepts and coverage schemes.

Prescott was supposed to be Romo’s apprentice, not turn him into the most expensive backup (cap figure? $20.8 million) in the league.

Here’s what Rang and Brugler like about Dobbs: “Shows impressive understanding of the offense” … “calming presence in the huddle” … “like a rifle shot with a tight spin that makes it easy for pass-catchers to track.”

However, they see a fair amount of red flags, too: “Inconsistent decision-making and erratic ball placement” … “has a slight hitch in his delivery” … “doesn’t consistently enough step into his throws” … “relatively thin” … “often leaves the pocket earlier than necessary” … “must improve ball security.”

But if you took the names off the two evals, it would be hard to tell them apart. “Relatively thin” is the only dead giveaway for Dobbs.

Rang and Brugler graded Prescott for Round 4-5, which turned out to be right on the money. At this point, about three months before draft weekend, they have Dobbs going in Round 7. A lot can change between now and then, though.

Prescott, as a matter of fact, was MVP of the Senior Bowl a year ago. He completed 7-of-10 passes for 61 yards and a touchdown without an interception. That being said, the results of the game itself are often immaterial to the scouting process. It’s the three days of practices that matter most.

It remains to be seen how much Dobbs can truly help himself between now and April. Prescott didn’t get much of a bump.

Prescott nailed the Senior Bowl. He also nailed the Scouting Combine a month later by testing well, throwing well and interviewing well. Aside from an out-of-character DUI arrest in March, he played the pre-draft fiddle beautifully.

But he wrapped up his career in Starkville with a mid-round grade. He ended up going in the middle rounds — even after supposedly helping himself in Mobile and doing the same in Indianapolis. In the end, Prescott was a spread quarterback who couldn’t throw a football through a brick wall. No. 1 overall choice Jared Goff supposedly could.

Nevertheless, Dobbs has something Prescott didn’t: precedent. While Prescott was being compared to Tebow, Dobbs is being compared to Prescott.

Fair or not, too many coaches and general managers took one look at Prescott and just saw another Tebow. Same offense. Similar build. Since Tebow had a lone memorable moment in the NFL before flaming out, Prescott was guilty by association.

The landscape has changed — that’s fortunate for Dobbs. Like Prescott, he worked exclusively out of the shotgun. Like Prescott, he did just as much damage with his legs as he did with his arm. Like Prescott, he comes from a good family, is well educated and has already achieved legendary status for his work in the community.

Players tend to not like comparisons. They prefer to be just themselves. But this is one comp that Dobbs can only hope is made.

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Day 1

The Senior Bowl debuted in Jacksonville at the Gator Bowl in 1950. In ’51, it moved to Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile. It’s been there ever since.

Dobbs was one of three quarterbacks on hand for the South team. He was joined by Davis Webb of Cal and Antonio Pipkin of Tiffin. A fourth QB, Chad Kelly of Ole Miss, was in town for the proceedings but still recovering from a torn ACL.

Despite the fact that this is the most high-profile college All-Star game on the calendar, the crop at the game’s most important position left a little to be desired this year. The North featured Iowa’s C.J. Beathard, Pittsburgh’s Nathan Peterman — he and Dobbs originally were teammates at Tennessee — and Colorado’s Sefo Liufau.

According to CBSSports.com, Peterman has the highest grade of the seven. He’s projected to go in Round 4.

As tends to be the case at events such as these, with a bunch of guys who’ve never played together before all learning a new playbook in the span of a few days, Tuesday’s practice was a bit choppy. Dobbs wasn’t immune.

In 7-on-7 drills, he was forced to throw one ball away because there was nobody open. On the next play, he connected with South Alabama tight end Gerald Everett on a slant for what would’ve been a short gain. The play after that — passers took their reps three at a time — LSU’s Travin Dural dropped a good throw on a curl route.

Later on in 7-on-7, miscommunication reared its ugly heard. While Dobbs threw an in-breaking route, Dural cut to the outside.

He started to warm up as the session continued, though. Dobbs finished 7-on-7 with back-to-back completions, the first to Everett in the flat on a checkdown and the second to Western Kentucky receiver Taywan Taylor on a comeback.

Moving on to 11-on-11 work, Dobbs found Alabama’s O.J. Howard on a tight end screen, followed by a flare to Florida State fullback Freddie Stevenson off play-action. For a spread quarterback, his footwork was awfully sharp on the bootleg rollout. His final three throws — a slant, an out route and a ball down the seam — were all caught.

When I made my way to Dobbs to introduce myself after practice, he was answering a question about throwing to former sworn enemies like Howard.

Like Prescott had to do a year ago, Dobbs has to defend himself against being labeled a “spread quarterback.” The assumption is that an offense like the one he ran with the Volunteers bears no resemblance to what he’ll see in the NFL.

But the truth of the matter is that the professional game has come back to the college game to some degree recently. Tom Brady of the New England Patriots and Matt Ryan of the Atlanta Falcons will face each other Sunday in the Super Bowl, yet both work out of spread formations — in the shotgun, of course — with regularity.

Dobbs and Co. had three days of practice and a walk-through to get ready for Saturday’s game. Only the basics were on display.

“Although we were in the shotgun and we had the spread, we still ran pro concepts, pro schemes,” he told me. “Many of the plays that we ran out here today and that we’ve installed, I’ve ran at Tennessee and I have reps with them. They’re just called something different. They might come from under center, throwing to different personnel, different guys. I’ve been able to see those plays, go through those progressions, so it’s good to come out here and do it with some different guys on a different stage.”

While other players rushed to get back on the bus, Dobbs made sure that everyone who wanted to talk to him got a few minutes.

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Day 2

While Tuesday’s practice was only in shells, Wednesday’s workout put the players in full pads for the first time.

Beginning quickly with 11-on-11 action, Dobbs was 3-for-3 on a checkdown to N.C. State running back Matt Dayes, a drag route to Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram and a deep strike right down the seam to a wide-open Howard.

One of the throws every quarterback in the NFL must make consistently — especially in today’s game — is the back-shoulder fade. Just because a cornerback is running evenly down the sideline with a wideout, that doesn’t mean a play can’t be made. Placing the pigskin at the target’s back shoulder can help create separation.

On 1-on-1 work, Dobbs executed such a throw perfectly to Dural despite tight coverage from Florida State’s Marquez White.

Unfortunately for Dural, who had a rough start to the week, he dropped the ball. Nevertheless, Dobbs put an NFL-quality pass on tape for every coach and general manager in the league to see. Prescott has excelled with such throws.

He was hit and miss in 11-on-11 the rest of the way. Completion to Howard on an out route after a read-option fake. Misfire to Mississippi State receiver Fred Ross on a slant — that one was high. Back to 7-on-7, a curl to Taylor should’ve been intercepted. But the next rep was a connection to Williams on a quick out.

Dobbs’ best throw came on a play-action bootleg, which resulted in a strike to Ross on a comeback route. Pretty indeed.

As I watched practice and charted the performance, I ran into former Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager and current ESPN analyst Mark Dominik. We spent some time last year talking about Prescott’s prospects at the next level.

Dominik was pleasantly surprised with the footwork Dobbs had put on display in Mobile. Clearly, he was seeing the same things I saw. Dobbs was standing out from his fellow quarterbacks on rollouts and boots — nobody doubts his athleticism — the last two days. “Whomever he’s working with has done a good job,” Dominik said.

When asked if Dobbs can be the next Prescott, Dominik hesitated. He was much more complimentary of Prescott a year ago.

However, he agreed that Prescott’s success as a rookie could help Dobbs get an extra look here and there. Same conference. Similar makeup. Comparable offenses. “Look at it this way,” Dominik said. “It can’t hurt.”

As I did the day before, I waited my turn as Dobbs answered questions from other media members. For the most part, they were the same ones he answered Tuesday. Dobbs never lost his cool — always polite, always patient, always poised. Even if he never won anything at Tennessee, this is why so many Volunteer fans are sad to see him go.

I asked him the simplest of queries: So how do you think you’re doing so far?

“The goal is to complete every ball, and of course not every ball is being completed, so you’re always trying to grow and improve watching film,” he said. “Watching film at night, looking at my footwork, focusing on the details. You come out the first day and you have the general grasp of the offense, your first time going through plays.

“Once you get to second, third day, now you’re focused on the details of the offense, trying to execute the proper footwork, proper steps, be in the right positions in the pocket, on the rollout, outside the pocket, and make sure your eyes are looking in the right direction. Just focusing in and honing on those details will help you play effectively when you get out on the field.”

For the second day in a row, he was the last player to board the bus. And for the second day in a row, he didn’t seem the least bit bothered.

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Day 3

There were noticeably fewer people on the sideline for Thursday’s practice. After a couple of warm, sunny days, it was cool and overcast.

That had little to do with the attendance, though. The fact of the matter is that many scouts and such have already made up their minds about certain prospects before ever stepping foot on the turf at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

We saw it a year ago with Prescott. Everything about his pre-draft performance suggested that he deserved to be bumped up a round or so. Nevertheless, it didn’t happen. Yes, the DUI arrest was a shocker, but he was found not guilty and everyone associated with him — he’d been such a high-character kid prior — promised it was a one-time aberration.

Click around the internet for a while, and it’s not hard to find Dobbs on a list of players who supposedly helped themselves in Mobile.

Day 3 featured more highlights for Dobbs. He seems to like the comeback route since he fired another bullet to Clemson’s Artavis Scott. Also, when there was nobody open, he slung the ball away. Neither Webb nor Pipkin was doing that.

While there was no blitzing allowed in Saturday’s game, Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams — Cleveland coached the South team this week — threw a wrinkle at Dobbs with a double corner blitz. He recognized the pressure and found Texas A&M receiver Josh Reynolds, who was open in the spot vacated near the right sideline.

He was a little late making the decision, which Williams was happy to point out afterward, but I marked it down as a quality rep for Dobbs.

With the third and final full workout of the week ending a bit early, I found head coach Hue Jackson, who’s known as one of the NFL’s leading quarterback gurus. He has worked wonders with the likes of Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton.

Overall, he was pleased with what he’d seen from Dobbs and called him “very coachable, very bright … very talented.” That being said, he didn’t like the Prescott comparisons. They both played in the SEC. They both ran the spread. They both carry themselves well — but expecting Dobbs to be Prescott 2.0 is unfair.

“I think it’s very important to let these guys be who they are and let them show what they’re able to do in the National Football League as they move forward,” Jackson said.

There were fewer scouts and reporters for Thursday’s workout, but the field was as crowded as ever after the final whistle. A lot of local fans were granted access, including members of a high school football team.

Dobbs, supposedly a seventh-round pick practicing with a handful of future first-rounders, was by far the main attraction. He shook every hand. He signed every autograph. He posed for every photo. The rest of the South squad was already on the bus waiting to go back to the hotel, but he couldn’t — and wouldn’t — say no.

As I walked with Dobbs back to the bus, I changed my final question to him: How are you able to handle all this so well?

“I’m thankful to come from two great parents that have always taught me just to keep everything in perspective,” he said. “You could have been on the other side where no one knows your name and you’re just another person, so just be humble and take it with a grain of salt. Just take it one day at a time and enjoy the opportunity while you have it.”

I thanked him for his time all week. He thanked me for mine. But before he boarded the bus, he signed a few more autographs first.

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Game Day

The South defeated the North on Saturday 16-15 in front of 32,175 fans at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

Jackson gave the start to Dobbs, who completed 12-of-15 passes for 104 yards with no touchdowns and 1 interception. The INT was hardly his fault, though. Penetration from a pass rusher knocked the ball skyward and right into a defender’s breadbasket.

But following the pick, Dobbs connected on his final nine throws before moving aside for Webb. His longest completion was a 24-yarder to Howard — he was a beast all week — over the middle. Be it taking snaps from under center, rolling out off play-action fakes or lining up in shotgun formation, he looked comfortable from start to finish.

During the broadcast, NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock was quite complimentary of Dobbs. Still, it’s clear he sees some flaws.

“The kind of guy you root for,” Mayock said. “He’s got a whippy arm. He’s got some size and athletic ability. The inconsistency with the accuracy is the big concern I have on tape. But he’s one of the smartest kids in this game.”

* * *

Unlike most prospects invited to Mobile this year, Dobbs has options. If the NFL doesn’t work out, he’ll be just fine.

In four years, Dobbs graduated from Tennessee with a degree in aerospace engineering. Even for a student not pulling double duty as a quarterback in the SEC, it can take five years to hang such a diploma on the wall.

These days, half the football players at a typical Power 5 program are majoring in sport management or the like — essentially the study of being an athlete. Despite the fact that this is the Senior Bowl, too many of the participants will never finish school. The goal was to stay eligible, not expand their minds academically.

Ask Dobbs about his favorite subjects. Math and physics is what he’ll say. He even interned at aerospace manufacturer Pratt & Whitney.

To be frank, coaches and general managers at the next level aren’t interested in well-roundedness. They’re seeking guys who are all football, all the time. Believe it or not, Dobbs’ advanced education could actually work against him.

Not only was Myron Rolle an All-American safety at Florida State in 2008, but he was also a Rhodes Scholar — the first gridiron great to earn that honor since Pat Haden at USC in 1978. Rolle delayed his pro career by a season in order to study abroad at Oxford. He has a master’s in medical anthropology and is now an aspiring neurosurgeon.

When Rolle returned to the United States and declared for the 2010 draft, he didn’t hear his name called until the sixth round.

Instead of admiring Rolle’s once-in-a-generation intellect, teams questioned if he truly loved the game. They wondered if he stayed in shape while across the pond. Nothing in those medical textbooks would help him defend Peyton Manning.

Dobbs can expect a similar line of questioning throughout the pre-draft process. Is it his dream to win a Super Bowl or design a space shuttle for NASA? The fact that he was able to accomplish so much on the field and in the classroom simultaneously — in-major GPA? 3.5 — is nothing short of incredible.

However, if a dumb-as-a-box-of-rocks college dropout has more potential as a passer, he’ll probably get drafted ahead of Dobbs.

“The draft guys, they’re not any GM, any owner, any coach on the coaching staff, so everyone’s entitled to their own opinion,” Dobbs said. “When I step on the field, I feel like I’m the most confident in my skills and ability. I feel like I compete with the best of them, and I just enjoy playing the game of football. That’s all you can do. You can’t get caught up too much in the outside stuff.”

Dobbs clearly loves what he studied in Knoxville and is looking forward to taking his learning even further. He’d like to work for Boeing one day. What’s yet to be determined is if “one day” is two years from now or two decades.

“Thankfully, everything that I’ve set my mind to has worked out, so I plan on football working out,” he said. “But after football, I plan on pursuing my engineering degree and my love for aviation. I know that will be down the road, but I plan on football working out. And I’ll be excited to see where it takes me.”

So many of the players Dobbs suited up with at the Senior Bowl only have one path that could lead to success in life. It’s football or bust. Dobbs has to prove that he wants this as badly as those who need it so much more than he does.

“My goal right now, my profession, my next profession is football, and that’s definitely what I’m excited to pour all my time into and just focus on football,” he said. “I’m excited about that. I think teams see that and see what my focus is and what my goal is.”

In the end, educated or not, talented or not, hungry or not, this comes down to whether Dobbs can actually play at the next level.

Despite everything he accomplished on Rocky Top from a statistical perspective, he never won 10 games. He never took the division. He never beat Alabama. The Vols were one of the country’s most disappointing teams in 2016.

No question, Dobbs was an outstanding college quarterback. He completed 61.5 percent of his passes and put together a TD-to-INT ratio of 53-to-29. He added 2,160 yards — a school record for a QB — on the ground to go along with 32 more scores. UT is a respectable program once again, and Dobbs is a big reason why.

His résumé may read similar to Prescott’s, but trying to determine future NFL success isn’t simple math. It’s complicated calculus. Even so, Prescott was more polished as a passer in the SEC. He was a more prolific runner, too.

Nothing sinks a draft grade faster than character issues. But if there’s one thing we learned with the Prescott situation, it’s that having impeccable character doesn’t necessarily provide a boost. Any franchise — quarterback-needy or not — would be happy to have Dobbs for the PR alone. And yet he’ll get cut the second he can’t dissect a defense.

No, he’s not the next Dak Prescott. But he’s the first Joshua Dobbs. We’ll find out soon enough if his “love for aviation” includes a pro passing game.


John Crist is the senior writer for Saturday Down South, a member of the FWAA and a voter for the Heisman Trophy. Send him an e-mail, like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

Photos from USA TODAY SPORTS