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Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs.

KNOXVILLE - Jason Dukes was sitting in his living room watching college football three Saturday afternoons ago.

His television was tuned to the Tennessee-Alabama game in Tuscaloosa, where the top-ranked Crimson Tide had cruised to a 35-0 halftime lead against the Volunteers.

Yet the start of the second half brought Dukes to his feet.

The Alpharetta (Ga.) High School football coach watched with excitement as Josh Dobbs, the Tennessee freshman who quarterbacked Dukes' Raiders teams the past two seasons, made his debut for the Vols.

"It was an exciting thing for me," Dukes told the Times Free Press this week. "One of the real special things to me was to see how his teammates reacted. On television, you could see all of his teammates coming over to him and tapping him on the helmet and the shoulder pads and giving him encouragement and understanding how big that was for a young man in his age and in his position.

"It was a really good feeling for me."

Dukes, the fifth-year Alpharetta coach who played right tackle at Georgia Tech in the early 1990s, has watched Dobbs start against Missouri and Auburn the subsequent two weeks, and while he's been happy to watch his former pupil step into a big role as Tennessee's quarterback, he's still a football coach.

That means he's evaluating and analyzing Dobbs' play.

"It harks back to the time when he first started football games for me," Dukes said. "There are good things and there are some things he needs to work on. It's very evident that he's going to catch on to this thing and catch on to it fast. He's going to have a bright future there at Tennessee.

"I'm happy for him as a spectator, but he's always going to be a kid that I coached, and whether it be his footwork or whether it be his tendency to sometimes want to make a play really, really bad and force the ball into areas, you're always critiquing. He's handled himself extremely well, and we're proud of him. We see that he's going to do nothing but improve."

Thrust from a redshirt season into the starting role due to injuries to Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman and Riley Ferguson, Dobbs has flashed potential and made some freshman mistakes in his first three appearances. He's still looking for his first touchdown, which he'll try to knock out against Vanderbilt next week following the Vols' open date today.

The wiry 6-foot-3, 193-pounder ran for 95 yards the past two weeks, including runs of 32 and 33 yards. Tennessee even called some quarterback draws against Auburn last week, and Dobbs picked up good yardage when he tucked it and ran, though he missed some reads and should have kept the ball more in the Vols' zone-read run scheme.

Two of the three interceptions Dobbs has thrown in his two starts were forced throws into double coverage deep down the field. The "next phase" for him, said first-year Vols coach Butch Jones, is improving on his throws down the field.

"He's had to grow up in a hurry, and all of our quarterbacks have done a great job, and particularly our younger players," Jones said. "It's hard as a true freshman. You're talking about four seniors on the offensive line, and here you are as a true freshman, whether it's Josh or Riley, and they've both done a great job.

"We want our quarterbacks to be football junkies. We want them to be gym rats. We want them coming around and really studying the game, and they've done a good job of that."

An aeronautical engineering major fascinated by the mechanical side of airplanes, Dobbs has no problem studying, whether it's a textbook or game video. He admits to liking his classes, particularly those involving math. The first thing any Tennessee coach or teammate points to about Dobbs in his smarts.

Thus it's no surprise he takes extensive notes when he's reviewing game tape of his performances, and his engineering allows him to remember or understands things more quickly if he writes them down.

"I like to go in and critique myself - see the things I could have done better," Dobbs said. "Also, I see the things I did well but mainly focus in on the the things I could have do better, so I can focus in on those at practice to get ready for the next game.

"Those [notes] really help me a lot - being able to go back and look over them and see what I thought of my performance and where I can continue to grow and get better."

That's typical Dobbs, said Dukes, who's known the Tennessee quarterback since the seventh grade.

"Josh is a kid that you can show him something one time, you can rep it a couple of times and he's got it," Dukes said. "He immediately goes out and uses it as part of what he does and how he's prepared for the game. That was something that was really, really special about Josh.

"He has an incredible work ethic. He's got a lot of natural God-given ability, but then on top of that, he really works hard to go out and perfect his craft. That's one thing you're going to see from him and one thing that really makes me excited for his future. What Tennessee has is a kid that's got a lot ability but is going to go out and develop himself and improve himself."

Though he probably didn't expect it, Dobbs has gotten his opportunity to show he is Tennessee's quarterback for the future. The Vols like Ferguson, and Worley nearly quarterbacked Tennessee to a pair of SEC wins. But it's Dobbs' show for the final two games, and he'll have to lead the Vols past Vanderbilt and Kentucky for the team to reach its goal of a bowl game.

"I've always told him to give other people the credit when great things happen, and when sometimes things not so great happen, sometimes it's the quarterback almost needing to take responsibility for those things," Dukes said. "When you do those things, your teammates will respect you, they'll love you for it and they'll do anything for you."

"I think that's one of the things that Josh's teammates are going to realize about him, is that he's going to take responsibility for things. He's not going to call people and point fingers, and that's one of the great things about his leadership style."

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