Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs wasn’t terrible in his first career start in November 2013 at Missouri.
He completed 26 of 42 passes for 240 yards, but Dobbs also threw two interceptions with no touchdowns and led the Volunteers’ offense to only three points in a lopsided loss.
The No. 19 Tigers won’t see that Dobbs again at 6:30 p.m. Saturday at Neyland Stadium.
“He is a different player,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said of Dobbs. “He’s playing at a whole different level.”
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Dobbs was Tennessee’s third-string quarterback coming out of camp, but starter Justin Worley suffered a season-ending shoulder injury against Mississippi.
Vols coach Butch Jones turned to backup Nathan Peterman against Alabama, but benched him after two possessions in favor of Dobbs.
The Crimson Tide only outscored Tennessee 21-20 after Dobbs was inserted.
The Vols then racked up 95 points in his first two starts, a 45-42 overtime win at South Carolina and a 50-16 victory last week against Kentucky.
Dobbs has completed 61 of 99 passes for 790 yards with seven touchdowns and two interceptions and has rushed for 289 yards and four more scores in those three games.
It’s a far cry from the true freshman who took his first snaps as a starter at Memorial Stadium in Columbia last year.
“He benefitted from that game as with all the live-game opportunities that were afforded him last year,” Jones said. “But he’s not even the same quarterback from an arm strength standpoint, from a functional intelligence (standpoint) in terms of in terms of knowledge of the offense and his body in terms of his growth and maturation.”
For more on Dobbs and the Volunteers, we turned to Matt Slovin, Tennessee’s beat writer at The Tennessean in Nashville, for insight. Be sure to follow Slovin on Twitter and read his work ahead of Saturday’s game.
Now, for the questions:
Q: What has changed for quarterback Josh Dobbs since last season’s Missouri game?
Slovin: “By all accounts, his quarterbacking instincts have kicked in, and he’s a much better decision maker than the quarterback Missouri fans saw a year ago. They might not recognize him Saturday night. His accuracy is also better. Not great, but certainly better. It’s truly been a meteoric rise — a month ago, he wasn’t a factor. Now, he’s getting standing ovations in his classes.”
Q: How devastating do you think the absence of linebacker A.J. Johnson be? Is it fair to say he’s the most important player for any SEC defense? And how will Tennessee adjust personnel-wise?
Slovin: “He’s certainly the most important part of the Tennessee defense, which finally looked like it might be turning a corner last week following a string of explosions by opposing offenses. It will likely be Jakob Johnson who starts in place of A.J. Johnson. Jakob’s just a freshman, but the coaching staff has praised his preparation. Still, as Butch Jones admitted this week, you simply don’t replace the second-leading tackler in program history. It’s a gaping hole, no doubt.”
Q: Will the suspensions of Johnson, cornerback Michael Williams and safety Brian Randolph, who is out for the first half after last week’s targeting ejection, be a distraction or can it galvanize Tennessee’s defense into rallying together and playing better?
Slovin: “There has been a noticeable energy at Tennessee’s practices this week, so I’m reluctant to go with my original answer to this question, which was that it will be a major distraction. I still don’t see the absences being something the team rallies around. Johnson is very much the face of the team, and the defensive communication will suffer at least a bit.”
Q: Tennessee has never beaten Missouri. How much motivation does that provide, especially given the four-overtime game two years ago and a blowout loss last season?
Slovin: “This is a very young team, and a lot of its main contributors weren’t around for the 2012 four-overtime loss, which probably stung far more than last year’s defeat. I’m not sure there’s much motivation to be gained from never having beaten Missouri, but there’s definitely considerable respect among the Vols for their newest divisional foe.”