Josh Dobbs lived a double life at the University of Tennessee.
On Saturdays, he led the Volunteers explosive offense against whatever ferocious SEC defense was on the schedule. Weekdays, he could be found deep within the Nathan G. Dougherty Engineering Building, deciphering heat convection equations and analyzing Castigliano’s Theorem while working toward his degree in aerospace engineering.
Thus is the life of one of the most intriguing prospects in the 2017 NFL Draft class. Dobbs’s unique blend of athletic prowess and academic aptitude began taking shape during his childhood in Alpharetta, Georgia. At 5 years old, he attended his first organized football practice. His parents were under the impression it was of the flag variety, but they were mistaken—this was full pads, full tackle football. Dobbs excelled at sports right away, playing basketball and baseball in addition to football. His parents preached the important of academics from the start, but it didn’t take much convincing for Dobbs to take schoolwork seriously.
“My parents set the record straight by making academics really important and teaching me I couldn’t play sports forever. You have to go to school and take advantage of the classroom,” Dobbs says. Soon enough, he discovered an interest in the field he would later major in. A trip to Kennedy Space Center while he was in elementary school sparked his fascination with aviation, and participation in the Atlanta OBAP (Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals) and a Tuskegee Airman ACE (Aviation Career Education) summer camp later solidified it.
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From a young age, Dobbs was also fiercely competitive. His father, Robert, taught him that it’s good to be fiery, but that he also must not let his emotions overwhelm him. “I was competitive. When I’d lose, I’d get frustrated, I’d cry. I’d show my emotions. My dad told me that no matter how competitive you are, [it’s important to be] mentally tough,” Dobbs says.
As Dobbs matured, the expectations he set for himself both athletically and academically grew along with him. “I remember throughout high school, a big thing I started doing was running through my neighborhood at night. Every night I was trying to improve, because I felt like there were other guys out there working and trying to get to where I wanted to be,” Dobbs says. “I would time myself every night and try to improve.” He also began taking physics classes in high school, which combined his love of mathematics with his love of science. It was there that he realized engineering was the field he eventually wanted to pursue.
Dobbs’s abilities on the football field and in the classroom at Alpharetta High School helped him earn the attention of a wide range of college programs. Powerhouses like TCU, Arizona State and Mississippi State made offers to him, but so did Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Eventually, Dobbs settled on the University of Tennessee. The fact that the school offered an aerospace engineering degree was a deciding factor.
“Growing up, my parents wanted me to be a lawyer,” Dobbs says. “[Eventually] I learned that engineering was what I wanted to go into. Then aerospace and my love of aviation [I developed] throughout middle school and elementary school, it’s the ideal major.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dobbs graduated from the Alpharetta school district with 13 years of perfect attendance.
At Tennessee, Dobbs’ ability to juggle school and sports was tested further. High school math classes suddenly became courses with names like Structural Analysis of Aerospace Vehicles. Bleacher stadiums in north Georgia suddenly became the modern coliseums of the SEC. The stage was bigger than ever, but Dobbs remained focused. During his freshman season at UT, he often looked to Curt Maggitt for guidance.
Maggitt had spent the previous two seasons as the team’s starting middle linebacker but was sidelined for all of 2013 after ACL surgery. Despite the injury, Maggitt was still the de facto leader of the program. “He taught me how to be a productive leader,” Dobbs says. “He told me, ‘to be a leader of a team, you can’t be everyone’s friend. But you can be everyone’s teammate.’ He knew how to command and control a room. I learned a lot from him.”
Dobbs’s freshman season was bumpy—he started the last four games of the season, tossing two touchdowns but also six interceptions. But the experience he gained was invaluable.
After a couple years of seasoning, Dobbs led the Volunteers to a nine-win season in 2015 (their most since 2007) and a Outback Bowl victory. He did more of the same last season, again guiding UT to a 9-4 record. Playing in the hyper-competitive SEC, every week was a dog fight.
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No game was more exhausting in Dobbs’s career than last season’s win over Florida. Heading into the matchup, the Gators had won 11 straight games against the Volunteers—including a last-minute comeback in 2015. It looked like it would be more of the same after the first half, as the Gators went into the locker room with a commanding 21-3 lead. Dobbs went on to throw four touchdown passes in the second half, and the Volunteers would storm back for an electrifying 38-28 victory.
“[I] left everything on the field,” Dobbs says. “You definitely want to walk off the field with that feeling. There’s nothing more satisfying than knowing you left it all out on the field—especially when you get the victory.”
Dobbs saved one of his best performances at UT for his last game in a Volunteer uniform. Against Nebraska in the 2016 Music City Bowl, Dobbs compiled 291 passing yards, 118 rushing yards, four total touchdowns and zero interceptions. The performance solidified Dobbs’ potential as a future NFL quarterback, which is where we stand today.
To prepare for the NFL Combine and his Pro Day, Dobbs trained at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. For most prospects who turn their attention to the NFL, school typically becomes an afterthought, but not for Dobbs. He flew back to Knoxville on weekends so he could continue his academic work. The constant travel was a drain, but when has Dobbs ever been one to take the easy route?
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“I’m getting the best of both worlds. At IMG, I’m getting the best training,” Dobbs told STACK. “I also want to graduate and I feel like I’ve spent countless hours in the library or at home, late nights working toward my degree. I owe it to myself to graduate and get my degree on time.”
IMG’s Combine preparation program is rigorous, packing a dizzying amount of mental and physical training into each 13-hour work day. Dobbs was engrossed in every second of it, but when other players finally got a chance to unwind, he hopped on a plane back to Knoxville to face the final trials of his challenging major. It didn’t take long for Dr. Taryn Morgan, IMG’s Assistant Director of Athletic and Personal Development, to see that Dobbs was wired differently.
“He’s an impressive kid. You know he’s smart. But what he’s been able to manage—finishing up his degree in aerospace engineering, traveling back and forth from Tennessee, he went to the Senior Bowl. But what I love is that he always wants to get better and always wants to learn,” Morgan told STACK. “He’s always locked in. He’s always focused in.”
Occasionally, Dobbs’s aerospace expertise would manifest itself at IMG. He often used his personal drone to film his quarterback throwing sessions. Dobbs was also an elite performer in IMG’s Mind Gym—a classroom above the academy’s weight room stuffed with high-tech gadgets designed to challenge an athlete’s hand-eye coordination, peripheral vision, reaction time and depth perception. The exercises are meant to stress the athletes and see how well they respond under pressure. Dobbs navigated them all with scary precision. One drill, for which Dobbs wore 3D glasses, required him to keep track of the flight of 9 different balls on a screen while physically sliding either left or right to avoid virtual obstacles. He focused on the screen with his hands clutching an imaginary football, nimbly avoiding obstacles while expertly processing the path of each ball.
“The Mind Gym is very beneficial, because your brain is what really separates you. Everyone is fast and everyone is strong on the field,” Dobbs says.
If there were ever any questions about Dobbs’ raw athleticism, he answered them at the NFL Combine with a 6.75 3-Cone Drill (the fastest time among all quarterbacks) and a 4.64 40-Yard Dash (the second-fastest time among all quarterbacks).
On paper, Dobbs might seem like a surefire first-round pick. A tall, talented genius of a quarterback who checks off every intangible and has had success in the hyper-competitive SEC? There’s certainly a lot to like. But the NFL is finicky, especially when it comes to quarterbacks. That’s why Dobbs isn’t overly concerned with when he’ll go in the Draft—he’s more focused on using this time to make himself the best player possible. “[The Draft] is not the final step,” he says. “Everyone wants to hear their name called, and I’ll be excited when that day comes. But I also want to go on to have a long and successful career in the NFL. I’m preparing to be a better football player when I step on the field with whatever team I’m with.”