Tennessee Is in Better Hands with Joshua Dobbs Under Center

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistOctober 26, 2014

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With a massive hole in its injury-riddled offense, Tennessee found the perfect puzzle piece for its scheme Saturday night in third-string quarterback Joshua Dobbs.

Now, regardless of starting signal-caller Justin Worley's future health status, it's going to be difficult taking Dobbs out of the lineup.

The Vols lost yet another game to hated rival Alabama, but they may have found their quarterback of the present and future.

Head coach Butch Jones burned Dobbs' redshirt after two ineffective series by Nathan Peterman in UT's 34-20 loss to the Crimson Tide. The 6'3", 216-pound sophomore responded with a quality performance that was meaningful beyond his 267 total yards. 

Jones agreed, according to Rocky Top Insider:

An offense that had grown stagnant with Worley at the helm was rejuvenated.

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The threat of Dobbs keeping the football on the read-option opened up Tennessee's rushing game and, ultimately, its entire offense. Suddenly, receivers were breaking open downfield, linemen were blocking better and UT was moving the ball and scoring points.

All of it was because of Dobbs.

On one occasion, he threaded a pass to Marquez North through the outstretched arms of a defender for a crucial first down at the end of the first half. Another time, he broke two tackles and outran several other defenders for a 30-yard gain on a designed run.

He added another dimension to UT's offense all night.

Now, hope resides where it didn't before—especially during a first half that saw Alabama jump ahead 27-0. Tennessee roared back behind Dobbs, who willed UT down the field at times with his legs, arm and leadership.

Even when UT was down by multiple touchdowns, Dobbs was getting in the ears of his teammates and rallying them on the sideline, actions normally reserved for wily upperclassmen or long-time starters.

At this point, the Vols are sick of moral victories, but with four winnable games on the horizon against South Carolina, Missouri, Kentucky and Vanderbilt, UT needed some sort of spark with injuries claiming Vols left and right.

Dobbs provided, and the numbers are the only evidence necessary. A Vols rushing attack that was sixth-worst in the country amassed 181 yards on the ground against the nation's second-ranked rush defense. Dobbs had 75 of those yards.

Tennessee's official Twitter account noted the significance of Dobbs' ground performance:

When he finally got another shot to lead UT's offense, the sophomore aeronautical engineering major took off. Now, maybe Dobbs is on his way to being known for his play on the field as well as his academic prowess off it.

For the night, Dobbs finished 19-of-34 for 192 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. 

KNOXVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 25:  Head coach Butch Jones of the Tennessee Volunteers looks on during the game against the Alabama Crimson Tide at Neyland Stadium on October 25, 2014 in Knoxville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Dobbs' out-of-nowhere performance has happened before.

After struggling for much of the spring, he came out in the Orange and White Game and put on a show, looking like the best quarterback on the roster.

Saturday night produced a similar showing. The Alpharetta, Georgia, native hadn't taken a single snap all season entering the Alabama game and didn't even start the game against the Tide. But once he got on the field, he shined.

His showing was so impressive, it calls into question why Dobbs is just now getting a chance to display his skills. But considering he was never really a factor to challenge Worley for the starting job, this was surprising to everybody, including the coaches.

Maybe, Dobbs is just a gamer.

His arm strength has improved, and his release was quicker than at any point during his action last season. Though there were questions about his decision-making skills coming into the game, Dobbs was decisive in key moments. 

Even though the Vols must endure an eighth consecutive loss to Alabama, the rest of the season and the program rebuild don't seem as dire as it did. With a dual-threat weapon behind center, offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has the breathing room to actually call a balanced game.

The Vols were consistently strong offensively after their shell-shocked start. UT finished 11-of-19 in third-down conversions, held a time-of-possession advantage and wound up with 21 first downs.

That's impressive against anybody. Against Alabama, it's really strong, which furthers the idea that Dobbs should get a lengthy look as UT's quarterback.

Not only did the offense look better than it has since the Georgia game with him under center, the players believe in him. 

But now Dobbs must build off this impressive, unexpected performance and gain confidence and consistency.

No matter how good he looked at times against the Tide, Dobbs was far from perfect. He missed on a few passes in which his receivers had a step on the defender, including to a wide open North for a would-be touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Trying to do too much with UT down big early, Dobbs fumbled after a big hit by Reggie Ragland, and UA turned that into a touchdown.

Then, after 'Bama responded to UT's furious comeback and extended the lead to 34-17, Tennessee's offense sputtered to a three-and-out that all but ended the game. Dobbs threw his only interception into double coverage on the next possession.

Despite brief flashes of the inconsistency that had kept him from being the field this season, Dobbs was dynamic against Alabama. This was a solid next step in his progression.

Last year, he was thrust into action as a true freshman against Alabama and really struggled down the stretch as UT lost to everybody else on the schedule besides Kentucky. The real clunker came against Vanderbilt, losing to the Commodores with a bowl berth on the line.

The rest of this season is a redemption opportunity.

With Worley's status uncertain, this is Dobbs' team, and UT must beat three of its four remaining opponents to go to its first bowl game since 2009.

Dobbs looked like the clear-cut answer against Alabama, and he's really the only fit on this roster for Bajakian's offense. 

Tennessee needs for Dobbs to play like he did Saturday night the rest of the season. If he does, the Vols are his team, and UT's murky future quarterback situation just became a whole lot clearer.

All stats taken from UTSports.com, unless otherwise noted.

Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.