Behind Ricky Dobbs, Navy could put together special 2010 season
In 2009, Dobbs led the Midshipmen to just the third 10-win season in Navy history
Dobbs believes nothing is impossible, and Navy is targeting an undefeated season
After turbulent offseason, sport could use a feel-good story like BCS-busting Navy
ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- Ricky Dobbs' country needs him. A year from now, the Navy quarterback will be stationed on a ship, perhaps in Norfolk, Va., perhaps in San Diego, perhaps overseas, beginning at least a five-year career as a Naval officer.
In the meantime, college football needs Dobbs and the rest of the 2010 Navy football team. A sport that spent much of the past year ensnared in headlines about money -- be it the billions in television revenue driving conferences expansion or the tens of millions in potential pro salaries at the heart of various player-agent scandals -- could desperately use a feel-good story to remind us of the more wholesome traits it purportedly celebrates.
There are no NFL scouts descending on Annapolis, no budding superconferences looking to add Navy football to their "inventory." But with the glimmering sails of the Chesapeake Bay as a backdrop, an unranked team quietly goes through two-a-days amid whispers of a potentially special season.
More specifically, said Dobbs, "We want to have a perfect season."
Laugh if you want, but it's possible.
Following decades of futility, Navy football has undergone a notable resurgence over the past seven seasons, reaching annual bowl games, dominating rivals Army and Air Force and ending four decades of failure against Notre Dame by winning its past two games in South Bend. Even so, the Midshipmen have largely flown under the radar nationally, a blip in the sport's BCS-obsessed landscape.
From the first game of last season, however, there were signs that this might be a new breed of Mids. Their triple-option offense had long caused problems for middling opponents, but on the first Saturday in September, Navy walked into the Horseshoe in Columbus and came within a failed two-point conversion attempt of tying sixth-ranked Ohio State in the final minutes, surprising even their own coach.
"I was petrified that we were going to get demolished," said Ken Niumatalolo, Navy's third-year head coach, who took over for mentor Paul Johnson in 2008. "I'm never someone for moral victories, but it gave our kids great confidence that we can play with people, and I think it spurned on a lot of the other victories."
By season's end, those victories would come to include a 23-21 win at then-No. 19 Notre Dame and, most impressively, a 35-13 Texas Bowl blowout of Missouri, which capped a 10-4 season in which the Mids finished just outside the Top 25.
The common denominator in those games: Dobbs, a rising senior who has emerged as Navy's most celebrated quarterback since Roger Staubach and who is on several preseason Heisman lists.
In his first season as starter last fall, Dobbs led Navy to just its third 10-win season in history, broke Tim Tebow's NCAA record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (27), and became just the third Navy quarterback to rush and pass for 1,000 yards in a season. He accounted for four touchdowns against the Buckeyes, threw a 51-yard score in South Bend and racked up 296 total yards in the bowl game.
He did that, mind you, despite playing the last six games with a broken kneecap.
"He's by far the best passer we've ever had," said Niumatalolo. "We're still an option team, we're still going to run the football, but his ability to throw the football gives us a new dimension."
Including Dobbs, Navy returns six of its top seven rushers from last season, a scary proposition for a triple-option team. Also returning are a slew of veteran defenders, led by fourth-year starting safety Wyatt Middleton, who have helped the Midshipmen improve from 98th to 34th in total defense over the past three seasons.
And then there's the schedule. If ever Navy hoped to run the table, this is the year. The Midshipmen open with in-state rival Maryland, one of three ACC foes they'll face (along with Wake Forest and Duke), all of which finished with losing records last season. Navy faces just five teams that reached bowls last year, and two of those, East Carolina and Central Michigan, are undergoing coaching changes. Its two biggest challenges figure to be at Air Force (Oct. 2) and vs. Notre Dame at the Meadowlands (Oct. 23).
Middleton recently recounted a story from 2006, the year he, Dobbs and several of their future teammates spent at the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I., to gain admittance to the academy. One night, Dobbs got a group together and proclaimed that as Navy seniors, they would finish in the top 10 and play in a BCS bowl.
"I remember saying, 'I don't know, man,'" said Middleton. "Maybe we should take it a day at a time. Maybe we should get to the academy first."
Four years later, that scenario seems a lot less far-fetched. It's hardly surprising the notion came from Dobbs, a natural-born leader with a perpetual smile on his face and a slew of admirers at the academy, where he was named vice president of the Class of 2011. In Annapolis, Dobbs is a regular speaker at area youth clinics, and this summer in his native Douglasville, Ga., community leaders awarded him the key to the city.
His likely career track in the Navy will be as a Surface Warfare Officer, which, at its pinnacle, consists of commanding a ship. His self-professed motto: "Nothing is unattainable. Nothing is impossible." It's a line of thinking that seems tailor-made for Navy's 2010 season, but which is the product of Dobbs' entire life.
Dobbs' parents separated when he was 2. His mother, Barbara Cobb, battled a drug addiction, and for years she, Dobbs and his older sister Tici were constantly moving from apartment to apartment. Only years later did Dobbs figure out why.
"She always put us first," Dobbs said of the woman he calls his best friend. "When it came time for Christmas in December, she didn't pay rent. She'd move somewhere else so we could have the Christmas we wanted."
Dobbs' uncle, Thomas Cobb, took notice of Dobbs' throwing arm at an early age and began coaching him in youth football. Dobbs, who would eventually go to live with his uncle, soon became a sensation.
"People were coming to watch a little league team like it was a [junior high] team," said Cobb. "We were running shotgun formations, trips left, at 9 and 10 years old. And he was making plays. Basically, the whole community here put their arms around him."
The attention wasn't lost on Dobbs. "I'm a firm believer in 'It takes a village to raise a child,'" said Dobbs. "I was raised by Douglasville the community as a whole -- and not even what society would say the good parts. I was raised by the lowest of lows, the drug addicts, the alcoholics. A lot of them had opportunities [themselves] but got caught up in the streets. But every time I came around, they'd stop what they were doing, because they wanted me to succeed."
Come spring of his junior year of high school, Dobbs dealt with a new obstacle: Colleges weren't keen on a then 6-foot, 175-pound quarterback. Schools like Georgia Tech (pre-Paul Johnson), Wake Forest, Southern Miss and Vanderbilt wanted him, but as a receiver. But Navy assistant Brian Bohannon (ironically, now at Georgia Tech) relentlessly recruited him.