KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- In the time between his aerospace engineering classes, Joshua Dobbs slowly walks through a sea of students. Even at 6-foot-3 and 213 pounds, Dobbs is nearly hidden by people weaving past him.
His white earbuds block out the world around him as some students quietly acknowledge him with a smile or a head nod. However, on this cool, spring morning, Dobbs manages to be mostly invisible. But whether the people around him realize it or not, they're in the presence of the SEC’s most important player of 2016.
He’s the captain of a crew with championship expectations. As Dobbs goes, so goes Tennessee football.
No matter how improved this experienced defense might be with Bob Shoop taking over, Tennessee lives and dies with Dobbs. Even with 17 starters returning, including four offensive linemen, and with one of college football's most dynamic backfields to lean on, Dobbs’ play at quarterback will dictate the success or failure of this entire Vols team.
Because Dobbs is so important, Tennessee is now being linked to a long-awaited SEC East title. Dark horses no longer, the Vols are the favorites. In a division full of unknowns and new faces, everything is stacked in Tennessee’s favor, and failing to reach the SEC title game would be a major disappointment.
Fair or unfair, that rests mostly on Dobbs' shoulders.
“Which is good,” Dobbs said, smiling, in an interview with ESPN.com in March. “I like it like that.”
He takes all this in stride. It’s a day-to-day, practice-to-practice, snap-to-snap grind for Dobbs, who is majoring in aerospace engineering. The even-keeled airplane enthusiast doesn’t have time to succumb to outside pressure. He’s too busy juggling a taxing major with being the face of a program looking to break through in a crucial season.
To cave would be a sign of failure, and this is the kid who once argued a B into an A during an optional day for seniors back in high school -- failure isn’t in his vocabulary.
No, his vocabulary is filled with “dimensionless parameters,” “rod strain energy,” “shock angles” and a dose of “Cover 2.” He’s as immersed in his educational life as he is in his football one, and while offensive coordinator Mike DeBord says he doesn’t know how Dobbs fits everything into 24 hours, his teammates think his robust academic workload benefits him on the field.
“The same mentality he has with football and the film study is the same way he is about his education," cornerback Cameron Sutton said. "He’s always working his mind and I feel like that makes him a better ballplayer and decision-maker. He’s always calm; he’s one of the calmest dudes.”
That demeanor has been a constant for Dobbs since he first entered the limelight by coming off the bench as a freshman against Alabama in 2013. A relaxed Dobbs returned exactly a year later to lead Tennessee to a 4-2 finish that included an improbable overtime victory at South Carolina after trailing 42-28 with less than two minutes left.
Dobbs was rarely flustered as a full-time starter in 2015. Even during double-digit collapses to Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas, he never showed his disappointment. He was always positive and motivating, trying to raise his teammates' spirits.
Those spirits soared when the Vols turned a dreadful 2-3 start into a 9-4 finish.
“That’s Dobbs for you,” defensive end Derek Barnett said.
Dobbs won’t take full credit for the turnaround, but he was instrumental in Tennessee’s renaissance. The Vols closed the season by winning seven out of eight, with Dobbs averaging 240.4 yards of offense with 18 total touchdowns. Dobbs finished the season with 2,291 passing yards and 15 touchdowns to five interceptions. He also led all SEC quarterbacks with 671 rushing yards and 11 more scores.
In three of Tennessee’s four losses, he rushed for fewer than 20 yards. In the other loss -- a horrendous 13-point collapse with less than five minutes remaining against Florida -- he threw for just 83 yards and no touchdowns.
“The offense is built around him," Barnett said.
Yes, it is, but that doesn’t come without its drawbacks. Dobbs might be one of the most talented and experienced returning SEC quarterbacks, but his passing ability has been questioned.
Last year, he completed just 17 passes for 25-plus yards (10th in the SEC), averaged only 176.2 passing yards per game (eighth) and failed to throw a touchdown pass in five games.
“He can’t throw the ball down the field," a Power 5 assistant said. "... That’s a guy you want to make throw the ball and make play quarterback.”
A former SEC assistant, who recruited Dobbs in high school, wondered if the coaching he's received and the schemes he works in have held back his passing ability.
“He’s kind of regressed a little bit as a passer,” the assistant said. “So who do you blame that on -- Josh or whomever?
“If they let him go play and trust him, to me, why would they not be the favorites in the East? Since he was a freshman, it seems as each year goes past, to me, it seems like he plays with handcuffs on, and I don’t know what that’s done for his confidence throwing the ball. I’ve seen him; I know he can throw the football.”
Dobbs laughs at talk of his inconsistency in throwing downfield. He'd like to be more vertical, but he wants to be smart.
“I’m looking to throw the ball,” Dobbs said. “My mindset is that I’m going to find the best place to go with the football, and if it’s not there, I’m able to make a play with my legs or extend the play and find someone downfield.”
There's still more for the senior to prove, but DeBord isn't worried about low passing numbers. He points to a Tennessee rushing attack that averaged 223.7 yards and accounted for 32 touchdowns as a reason Dobbs threw just 118 second-half passes. It was also a rushing game that registered 810 yards and eight touchdowns when the Vols led by at least seven. DeBord also sees that Dobbs completed 55.4 percent of his passes for 778 yards and six touchdowns on third down.
“Tell them to watch the Georgia [tape] and they’ll see him throwing the ball at the end of the game to come back and win it,” DeBord said. “He was player of the week; what’s that say? He does what the game dictates, I think.”
While Dobbs doesn’t let criticism bother him, he’s aware that he has some imperfections. He’s worked on his footwork and is looking to improve the command of his throws and his huddle. He’s making his body more of a priority with daily cold-tank sessions, massages and extensive post-practice stretching.
It's important to Dobbs that he be the ultimate player and leader.
“I hold myself to the highest standard in my execution, my play on Saturdays, and it’s about holding everyone to that standard,” Dobbs said. “It’s my job as the CEO is [to] set the example and then hold everyone else to it.
“At the end of the day, it comes back to: Are you winning games?”