Josh Dobbs will spend the weekend before the NFL draft flying hockey pucks across the desert.
No, Dobbs didn't switch sports. He isn't engaging in extreme cross-training or involved in an unlikely smuggling operation. The quarterback who brought Tennessee football back to prominence, beat Florida for the first time in 12 years and led the Volunteers to victory in three bowl games is trying to score one last comeback victory for his school.
Dobbs is part of an eight-student team participating in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Design/Build/Fly competition in Tucson, Arizona. The Tennessee engineers must design and build a lightweight model aircraft with folding wings that can carry three hockey pucks around three laps of a 3,000-foot flight course.
"We just got one of our prototypes to fly," Dobbs told B/R in late March, one week before his pro-day workout made waves among NFL evaluators. "That was great progress.
"We're finalizing our next prototype, then building our final plane from the data that we get."
Sounds great, Josh. But don't you have more pressing matters to attend to in late April?
"I'll be out in Tucson flying this airplane, trying to win this competition. Then I get the draft the following weekend."
All in a week's work for America's premier aerospace engineer/quarterback.
Make that quarterback/engineer.
Or, after the flight test and draft, plain old quarterback.
Dobbs did something no football recruit had ever done to Butch Jones during an official home visit: He walked out on the Tennessee coach and his staff. "I remember it like it was yesterday," Jones chuckled.
Dobbs had a high school exam the next morning. The recruiting visit ran long. So Dobbs did what would be unthinkable for any other coveted SEC recruit: He went upstairs to study.
"I gave them a fair warning," Dobbs explained. "It wasn't like they were sitting there for an hour and I said, 'Hey, I just gotta go.' I excused myself and made sure I was all good to go for the physics exam the next day."
Jones was not offended. He knew what type of prospect he was seeking to help rebuild the Tennessee program. "We wanted a CEO quarterback," Jones said. "We wanted an individual who was very consistent, who was very stable in their life."
Dobbs had already committed to Arizona State, and his commitment to academics was well established. So Jones' effort to lure Dobbs to Knoxville required him to pull a little-used reserve off the bench—the aerospace engineering department.
"We got a call from the athletics department saying, 'There's a guy we want to recruit. Would somebody please come meet him and talk to him?'" said Robert Bond, aerospace engineering lecturer at Tennessee and Dobbs' eventual academic advisor.
Bond had given tours to prospective students before, but this event was different. "To actually have a big production, to show a recruit? That's the first time I was ever involved in it."
"They made it a point of emphasis to get me around what I wanted to study," Dobbs recalled. "I got to pick [Bond's] brain and see what it was going to be like doing engineering while managing a successful football career."
The original plan was for Dobbs to redshirt as a freshman in 2013, bulk up a little bit and get much of his foundation coursework out of the way. But starting quarterback Justin Worley got injured at midseason in both 2013 and 2014, and Dobbs got the nod over Nathan Peterman as Worley's replacement both years.
The results weren't pretty at first. Dobbs threw five interceptions and no touchdowns in three straight losses in 2013. But when Worley got hurt again in 2014 before the Alabama game, Dobbs rallied the Volunteers against the Crimson Tide and kept the game close, earning a start the following week against South Carolina.
That game established Dobbs as Tennessee's permanent starter. It also served as a precursor to how the Vols would rarely find themselves out of any game with Dobbs under center. The Gamecocks held 35-21 and 42-28 leads in the fourth quarter. But Dobbs rushed for one touchdown and threw for another in the final two minutes, setting up a 45-42 overtime victory.
Dobbs claimed the starting job. After the season, Peterman transferred to Pitt, where he became an NFL prospect in his own right. With Dobbs at the helm, Tennessee beat Kentucky and Vanderbilt and then defeated Iowa for its first bowl victory in seven years. The program was respectable again after an endless string of 5-7 seasons.
It all started when Jones called an audible to accommodate a quarterback who put academics first. "We knew his priorities were in order," Jones recalled.
His Own Guru
Dobbs generated a lot of buzz at Tennessee's pro day in late March, not just for what he did but how he did it.
Dobbs threw the ball well, but lots of college quarterbacks throw well in pro-day workouts. Dobbs got the NFL's attention by scripting the workout himself.
"Joshua Dobbs … was his own quarterback guru, scripting his own plays for the workout portion of the pro day," wrote senior analyst Gil Brandt at NFL.com. "He started with four go routes and dropped each into the bucket. He ended with four go-routes and threw perfect passes about 50 yards down the field."
Jones corroborated Brandt's observation. "Josh Dobbs organized the entire throwing session," he said.
"That's very fitting of Josh Dobbs. He does nothing by chance. Everything is planned. Everything is very detail-oriented."
The impressive pro day was the final event of an exceptional predraft offseason. He stood out at the Senior Bowl. He threw well at the combine. And as Brandt's report indicates, he has spent weeks impressing scouts with his arm as well as his brain.
Dobbs spent much more time at IMG's performance center this winter than he spent in wind tunnel tests. "I would just wake up, eat, breathe and sleep football, all day and every day," he explained. "Nothing is being spread 50-50. I can just focus on being a professional football player."
That's remarkable, because Bond says the flight competition, which is a graduation requirement, is a full-time job for most seniors in the program. "When they aren't working on their other classes, it dominates their time," the professor explained.
"Of course, for Josh, he's got a lot of other stuff going on, on top of it."
That stuff is a lot of community service between his football preparations and engineering classes. He speaks at Boys & Girls Clubs. He visits sick children. He devotes extra time to children who are coping with alopecia, a condition that causes severe early-age hair loss, which also afflicts Dobbs.
"He's a great ambassador for the University of Tennessee in everything that he does," said Jones of a program that too often made headlines for the wrong reasons in recent years.
Not Just Mr. Nice Guy
Praise Dobbs for being the ideal student-athlete and "outstanding character" NFL prospect for too long, and it starts to sound like tacit criticism of him as a "legit" NFL prospect.
College football reporters tended to lean hard into the blind date with great personality theme when writing about Dobbs. One writer referred to him as the "likable-but-limited senior quarterback" in a game recap.
"I don't know what that means, but OK," Dobbs said when the quote was read to him.
A Tennessee-Alabama preview headlined "Gotta Love Joshua Dobbs, but Gotta Take Jalen Hurts" took a similar editorial stance: Dobbs represents everything that college athletics should be about, but "he has pretty much reached his ceiling as a college quarterback."
What does Dobbs think of these backhanded pats on the back?
"They don't even sound like compliments, honestly," he said.
"People try to put limitations and boundaries on a person that's good on and off the field," he said. "Which is upsetting, because you would hope that would be promoted because it's so rare."
Another narrative buzzing around Dobbs is that he'll have one foot in the airplane hangar and one on the practice field, or that he will bolt from the NFL for the safety of an aeronautics lab after his first on-field setback.
"When you say it out loud, it's crazy," Dobbs said. "It wouldn't make sense when you have the opportunity to play football to go off and do engineering. Engineering will always be there."
His professors agree.
"I would be surprised if anyone found a lack of commitment from Josh," Professor Bond said. "There's no question that football is dominant in his life right now, as it should be."
If anything, engineering may have held Dobbs back more in the past than it will in the future. Bond says the most difficult stretch in the brutal aeronautics curriculum is the first semester of the senior year.
"They've got aerodynamics, propulsion and astronautics, which are three real heavy-duty engineering classes," Bond said. "And then they've got a design class on top of that."
Dobbs had Florida, Georgia, Alabama, a bowl game against Nebraska, national attention and the scrutiny of NFL scouts on top of that. It's hard to imagine that he reached his "ceiling" as a quarterback while balancing one of the toughest conference schedules in college football with one of the most demanding academic schedules any student could devise.
"Sometimes, a guy can get through a college career and not get much better," former Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. "I think will continue to get better. He has more football ahead of him."
On the field, Dobbs looks more like a daredevil Top Gun fighter pilot than a lab-coat technician. Tennessee football has been an aerial stunt show since he took over, with dizzying highs and terrifying lows, often in the same afternoon.
Dobbs and the Volunteers were notorious for their nail-biting comebacks. In their second game of 2016, they trailed Virginia Tech 14-0 in the first quarter before storming back. They spotted Florida a 21-0 lead during a sloppy first half of turnovers, dropped passes and penalties before going on a 38-point tear to finally beat their archrivals for the first time in 12 years.
For an encore, Tennessee fell behind 17-0 in Georgia, came back to take a 28-24 lead late in the fourth quarter, fell behind on a Georgia touchdown with 10 seconds left and then won 34-31 on a Dobbs-to-Jauan Jennings Hail Mary with 0:00 on the clock.
Dobbs never lost confidence, even when the Volunteers faithful did.
"In the Florida game, we were down 21-3 at halftime. We ran inside zone at the end of the half, and our fans were booing us. It was crazy. At the moment you get in the locker room, you think: It can't get any worse than it is. It can only get better from here.
"That's literally what I said to the team: It can't get any worse. If we go out and focus on the game plan, we'll go out and win. It's easy. It's simple."
Dobbs' play was sometimes erratic at the start of those games, but not his emotions.
"You gotta know Josh," DeBord said. "He's very even-keel. He never gets down, and he's never really too up. He's very consistent that way. You know when you go through a game with him that it's the kind of guy you're gonna get.
"That's why he was able to really put together some great second-half performances."
"We always say that the mark of a great quarterback is his ability to lead his team from behind on the road," Jones said. "That's what Josh was able to do for us."
The comeback magic ran out against Texas A&M. The Volunteers rallied from a 28-7 deficit to take the game into double overtime, but the Aggies prevailed. That loss, compounded by injuries, started a three-game losing streak.
Things bottomed out against South Carolina. Dobbs was 12-of-26 for 161 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions in a 24-21 loss. "That was easily the worst game of my career," Dobbs said. "It's a tough thing to watch, honestly."
Again, Dobbs' even-keeled approach helped pull the team out of a nosedive: "It was a learning opportunity. I had a different mindset to finish out the year: Just go out and have fun. You can't try to do something extra. Just let the game come to you. And then I was able to finish the year strong."
Tennessee climbed back into the Top 25 with three straight victories. A 45-34 loss to Vanderbilt kept them out of the Sugar Bowl, but the Vols earned a virtual home game in the Music City Bowl against Nebraska: the team that handed both Peyton Manning and Tee Martin career-ending bowl losses.
"'I can't go out like that,'" Dobbs remembered thinking. "'I gotta go out on a high note.'"
Dobbs did just that, rushing for three touchdowns and throwing a game-clinching bomb to Josh Malone in a 38-24 win. For once, Tennessee led from start to finish. "At the end of the year, we were playing complete games," Dobbs said. "We were coming out, scoring on the first drive, and then we kept our feet on the pedal throughout the game."
The ups and downs on Dobbs' game film likely will relegate him to the middle rounds of the NFL draft. But Dobbs has improved steadily throughout his college career, and once his engineering-oriented mind is fully focused on football, well…the opportunity to outplay his draft position is there.
A Beautiful Mind
Playing quarterback is a mental challenge. But it's not rocket science. That's what aeronautic engineering is—literally.
"I had a class called 'Astronautics,'" Dobbs said. "The whole class was about space travel: going to Mars, how to get off the earth. It was legit rocket science."
When most quarterbacks are called to the whiteboard, it's because the coach wants to test their knowledge of a football play. When Dobbs studies for exams, he must fill whole study hall whiteboards with variables and equations.
"My friends will look at the board, like, 'What is he doing?'" Dobbs said. "People would walk through the library and say, 'I'm glad I'm not studying for that tomorrow.'"
Even the West Coast offense is child's play compared to differential calculus and fluid mechanics. But can building airplanes make someone a better quarterback?
"Some players can be intelligent in the books but not football intelligent," DeBord said. "But [Josh] had great football intelligence."
Jones agrees. "In terms of learning an offense, you only have to tell him one time," he said. "He understands both the physical repetitions and the mental repetitions as well."
"The same mindset that you have when you go to the classroom is the mindset you need to have in your game prep," Dobbs said. "Being detail-oriented when you are trying to figure out every little clue that's going to help you figure out a problem, on and off the field."
Dobbs even got some pointers on how to turn preparation and study into on-field success from another legendarily book-smart Tennessee quarterback. Dobbs and Peyton Manning have had a few meetings of the minds, including a one-hour film session.
"The entire time we talked about his pre-snap thought process," Dobbs said. "What he's looking for when he comes to the line and his communication. I was able to gain a lot of information from that."
Ironically, the one thing the study of aerodynamics doesn't help with is getting a football to fly straighter and truer. "People always ask if you can apply aerospace engineering to ball flight on the field," Dobbs said. "No, that has no correlation."
But what about, you know…ball inflation?
"I had a fluids class my junior year. I had to do a project for the Honors section. I did something similar to Deflategate."
Oh dear. Well, what were the results?
"A deflated ball has a lower chance of being thrown with a spiral, which creates a higher chance of inaccuracy. But a deflated ball is also a little easier to grip when you throw and a little bit easier to catch. So I guess there are pros and cons to both sides of it."
A scientific and diplomatic answer. Dobbs truly is NFL-ready.
The Tennessee AIAA flight team has never won the Design/Build/Fly competition, according to Bond. Engineering powerhouses usually take home the top prizes in the international competition. "Our teams will end up in the top 20 or 25, and we consider that a win," he explained.
That should sound familiar to Tennessee football fans. Dobbs may somehow engineer a fourth-quarter comeback in the Tucson desert, but it's more likely he'll have to settle for a respectable finish, and then for a mid-round draft selection the following weekend.
Perhaps it was for the best that Dobbs will spend his last weekend as a college student shuttling flying model aircraft, far from the cacophony of draft speculation. Dobbs has already heard it all from Peyton Manning and Tee Martin connections.
As an experienced SEC quarterback with rushing ability, lots of dramatic wins on his resume and questions about his consistency as a pure passer, he arrives in the NFL at an interesting time in the wake of Dak Prescott's unexpected stardom.
"The whole Dak conversation is pretty interesting," Dobbs said. "If you look at what was said about Dak when he was going through the same process as me, it was similar stuff. 'Can he make the transition? He can run and pass, but can he throw from the pocket?'
"Then Dak had the season he had; now they're praising him. They're saying, 'We knew from the beginning that he was going to be so great, a prototypical quarterback.' No, that's not what you were saying. A year ago, you didn't think he would ever be in the NFL. I just sit back and laugh.
"I know people have to play the comparison game. But I just take it with a grain of salt. I'm just trying to be the best Josh Dobbs I can be."
That may be a classic draft cliche, but it's also the only thing cliche about Dobbs.
Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.