HOOVER, Ala. — Joshua Dobbs walked out of the television interview area, but he couldn’t leave the bright lights behind. Seven cameras followed Tennessee’s star quarterback across the hallway to the print media interview room, where writers were waiting three-deep around his table.
It was but a hint of the attention to follow this season, when Tennessee promises to be the favorite to win its first SEC East title since 2007. And much of that expectation is due to Dobbs, not just one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, but the lone established signal-caller in a division fraught with instability behind center.
South Carolina could well start true freshman Brandon McIlwain for its Sept. 1 opener. Georgia exited spring practice with no clear starter. Florida seems ready to hand the reins to Oregon State transfer Luke Del Rio. Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt will each turn to players who started a handful of games last season.
And then there’s Dobbs, a senior who last season passed for 2,291 yards and 15 touchdowns, rushed for 671 yards and 11 more scores, and has been entrenched as the Volunteers’ starting quarterback ever since leading that unthinkable comeback from two scores down in the final four minutes at Williams-Brice Stadium in November of 2014.
“You can’t put a price tag on experience. That’s invaluable,” Volunteers head coach Butch Jones said Tuesday at SEC Media Days. “So to have him leading our offense and being a captain and leading our football program is very comforting to a head coach.”
Wearing an orange tie, “T” logo lapel pin, and checkerboard socks, Dobbs proved the biggest draw so far at a Media Days lacking the star power of former USC head coach Steve Spurrier, and with Alabama head coach Nick Saban yet to arrive. One of just three quarterbacks attending this week, Dobbs stands out amid a dearth of established signal-callers not just in the East, but throughout the league.
“Having a veteran quarterback is going to allow you to take some more shots, or take some more chances. Because you’re counting on that guy with experience, and that veteran quarterback to overcome coaching,” said Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen, who has yet to find a starter among four candidates vying to succeed Dak Prescott.
“You say we’re going to take a shot down the field, and the veteran quarterback is going to look and say, ‘It’s not here, I’m going to check it down.’ ... Younger quarterbacks, sometimes you call that shot and they’re thinking, ‘Coach is calling a play for me to go make it happen,’ and they’re going to throw that ball up. And that’s where mistakes happen.”
Dobbs has moved beyond that, and is clearly the reason many foresee a great leap forward for the Volunteers after last season’s 9-4 campaign. While Tennessee has just 11 seniors and will count on true freshmen at wide receiver, no SEC team is better positioned at quarterback, where Dobbs is hearing talk of both Heisman contention and taking the Vols to the next level at the same time.
“It’s never a burden to have expectations,” Dobbs said. “It’s great to have those expectations, because they assure you of how far Tennessee has come.”
Making the next step will require winning close games, something the Vols have struggled with. Tennessee is 13-5 in its last 18 games, the five losses coming by a combined 25 points. Dobbs points to results like last season’s victory over South Carolina — where the Vols forced a Jerell Adams fumble inside the 20 in the final minute to seal the victory — as evidence of progress.
“This team has grown,” he said. “This team has progressed, learning from experience.”
It all makes for a level of expectation not seen on Rocky Top since the days of Phillip Fulmer, who was head coach the last time Tennessee won the SEC East. For the Vols to get back there, Dobbs will unquestionably have to be the catalyst. Once he leaves following this season, it will be up to everyone else.
“We’re building it for sustained success,” Jones said. “We’re not building it for quick fixes where you have one or two successful years, then all of a sudden you’re struggling again. This program is going to be etched in stone and concrete.”
Mullen said the one-game suspension of freshman Jeffery Simmons, who was videotaped beating a woman during a fight, was “a university decision.” The defensive lineman will become eligible for Mississippi State’s second game Sept. 10 against South Carolina.
“Our university did a very, very thorough investigation into everything that happened within the situation there,” Mullen added, “and came up with the conclusion that, we felt that Jeffery deserved the opportunity to be part of our family.” What happens if that decision backfires?
“We’re all responsible,” Mullen said, adding: “I’m responsible for all of the actions of every one of my players. I’m responsible as a head coach.”
SEC replay officials will have broadened authority this season to assign a targeting foul in an “egregious situation” if not flagged on the field, coordinator of officials Steve Shaw said. Replay officials can also overturn on-field targeting calls if video evidence establishes that the defender did not launch himself or strike an opponent in the head.
“Because of the implication on the player, the disqualification component,” Shaw said, “we have to be correct.”
Sony Michel’s season is in jeopardy after the Georgia tailback broke his left arm in an ATV accident earlier this month, head coach Kirby Smart said. Michel’s injury adds more weight to the return of Nick Chubb, out since last season rehabbing a torn knee ligament.
“A sad injury, very upsetting for him,” Smart said of Michel, who rushed for 1,161 yards last season, primarily after Chubb went down. “... I don’t know the expectation for Sony, if he’ll be back or not. We’ll know a lot more when we get closer to the season. A lot of that injury is how does the muscle repair itself around that plated bone.”
Smart added that Chubb is “progressing really well,” though he’s unlikely to begin contact practice right away in preseason camp.
Trevor Knight said conversations with Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin “changed dramatically” after Kyler Murray transferred, leaving the Aggies with one scholarship quarterback. Knight transferred as a graduate student from Oklahoma, where he passed for 3,400 yards before losing his job to Baker Mayfield.
Knight, who is eligible immediately, won the Texas A&M starting job in spring practice. “This is an opportunity to put adversity behind and start a new chapter,” he said. Sumlin hopes his new QB learns from his past.
“Some of that gunslinger has won games, and some of that gunslinger cost him his job and has put him in the situation that he’s in,” Sumlin said. “... Growth during your career can happen quicker if you understand where your shortcomings are, and there was no greater teacher than losing this opportunity at Oklahoma.”