Aerospace engineering student and Vols QB Joshua Dobbs ready to take off

Joshua Dobbs threw for nine touchdowns and ran for eight last season in five starts. Phil Sears/USA TODAY Sports

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Joshua Dobbs sits quietly in the first row of the team amphitheater on Friday afternoon. You get the sense that Dobbs, a member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll working toward a degree in aerospace engineering, is used to being at the front of the class. Eyes forward, studying clips of practice, or head down, scribbling furiously into his notebook, Tennessee’s quarterback is a sponge with information. He’s the smartest kid in the room, although he does his best to hide that. Without stretching, he could run mental laps around almost anyone.

So Vols coach Butch Jones has to get creative when he tests his quarterback. There are no softballs.

"Hold up!" Jones says abruptly, stopping the team meeting midstride. "Josh Dobbs, stand up."

Jones says it’s first-and-goal from the 8-yard line. It’s late in the game, and Tennessee needs a touchdown to win.

"What’s your call?" he asks.

"What’s the formation?" Dobbs responds.

An assistant sets up the mental rep.

"What’s the coverage?" Dobbs asks, wanting more.

Some kind of zone. Maybe a mixed cover-zone look. There's not enough time to jot it down before Dobbs answers.

By the time the call is out of Dobbs' mouth, Jones changes the down and distance. Dobbs fires back with another play. In what feels like 30 seconds, coach and quarterback dial up four plays in four different scenarios. Not once does Dobbs look down at his notes. Not once does he stutter. When Jones leaves the team meeting, he grins just thinking about it. "We stimulate!" he says.

If the sequence hadn’t happened so fast, we’d have it transcribed for you here. But the plays themselves might be considered proprietary information, so it’s best that we didn’t. Besides, they are largely indecipherable to even the most avid of football connoisseurs. Many of Dobbs’ teammates couldn’t tell you what they meant. To Kyler Kerbyson, a fifth-year senior on the offensive line, it sounded like rapid-fire gibberish: "blah-blah-blah-blah-blah" and "nah-nah-nah-nah-nah."

"What the heck?!" he said he thought at the time. "What play is that? I’ve never heard of that. What is he talking about?"

Between his intelligence and his athleticism, Kerbyson said Dobbs is "everything you need in a quarterback."

"This guy is more prepared than I’ve ever seen," he continued. "I’ve never seen a guy that can do that. I’d just say, 'Run the ball.' Dobbs, he’s got the formation, what the O-line is doing, what the wide receivers are doing. He’s got it all figured out."

Much to his credit, Dobbs doesn’t put on a show about it, although he could if he wanted to.

Later, in a position meeting, offensive coordinator Mike DeBord told his quarterbacks to throw to the outside shoulder of receivers in the red zone. It’s the safer play, he explained. Dobbs quickly jotted down the note, and the three other quarterbacks in the room immediately followed suit. Although the group watched tape of the previous day’s practice, Dobbs politely corrected DeBord several times about which play they were looking at. Even the computer display had the wrong information. Without thinking about it, Dobbs sometimes finishes his coach’s sentences.

"I see a confidence about himself," Jones said of his quarterback. "Obviously, he has the respect and confidence of his peers and his teammates. But I see a hunger. I see a driven young man. I see passion."

Dobbs’ precociousness is something we’re only now beginning to see translate to the field. He threw for nine touchdowns and ran in eight scores last season in five starts, but this spring is the first time he’s entered practice as the clear No. 1 at quarterback after injuries forced the staff to burn his redshirt as a freshman and sophomore.

"It’s definitely nice to come into the spring and know where you are and knowing what’s at stake," Dobbs said. "It also helps team chemistry with guys. Last year it was split between four quarterbacks, but this year they have one guy. They know who the starting quarterback is, and going into this spring with that mindset has definitely helped our team and our offense out."

This offseason, Dobbs said he has worked on his footwork and put in extra time away from practice throwing to his receivers.

With Marquez North, Von Pearson, Pig Howard and Ethan Wolf to throw to, Dobbs has more than enough weapons in the passing game. With Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara at running back, the Vols could have one of the better offenses in the league.

"We’re going to play with an even higher tempo and be even more explosive," Dobbs said.

That has to be music to Jones’ ears. The third-year coach wants to see more consistency from Dobbs, who has thrown his fair share of interceptions, but he said, "He’s had as good a spring as anyone on our football team."

The challenge now, Jones said, is for Dobbs to step into a new role.

"We’ve challenged him to be what we refer to as a CEO quarterback," he said, "an individual that owns the football team that can manage problems and get us in the right plays, that can create answers, that has the leadership to directly affect and impact players around him."

He clearly has the intelligence to do just that. He’s shown he can dial up the right play for the right moment. But that’s only half the battle.

Dobbs is plenty quick between the ears. When the Vols take the field this fall, the question is whether he can he be fast and effective between the lines.