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Engineering the gridiron


Engineering the gridiron

The University of Tennessee football team is full of smart and talented players. Three of those players are aspiring to be engineers and are students in the MABE department.

Starting quarterback Joshua Dobbs is a junior and pursuing a degree in aerospace engineering. Sophomore defensive back Todd Kelly, Jr. and senior tight end Alex
Ellis are pursuing degrees in biomedical engineering.

Dobbs, Kelly, Jr., and Ellis took time out of their busy schedules to answer questions about football, academics, and life.

Joshua Dobbs

Q: Going into your freshman and sophomore seasons, you were not the starting quarterback. All of that has changed now. You have become the undisputed CEO of the offense, as Coach Jones liks to put it.  Along with that, there have been Heisman whispers, continued appearances on various watch lists, and identification as one of college football’s smartest athletes.  How do you keep yourself grounded in light of all the positive feedback and high expectations? Who helps you stay grounded the most?

A: I am very proud to have the opportunity to be a leader of the team and it is a tremendous honor to be included on the various watch lists. To be mentioned in the award discussions with so many top players across the country is really exciting for me and my team because it means that we are doing some good things at the University of Tennessee and people outside of our program are taking notice. On the other hand, I also realize that my name being on or left off a national watch list doesn’t help us win games or affect what we have to do to achieve the goals that we have set for this season.

Staying grounded is pretty easy because I know that in football there is very little that I have complete control over. I can control my effort, my preparation, and my attitude; so I stay focused on those things. My mom and dad and people around me also make sure I stay grounded. My parents have always emphasized the importance of keeping sports in perspective with the bigger picture of life. They are always reminding me that the Lord has blessed me with many talents and that the ability to play football is just one of them. For the team, Coach Jones reminds us that we are never as good or as bad as critics say we are. One of his favorite phrase is “praise and blame is all the same.” Having a strong bond with my teammates also helps. Growing together over the seasons, our team is a very close group and we keep each other in check. We see the amount of work that we all had to put in to get to this point and we know that it’s going to require a lot more to get where we want to be. So, there is really no time to rest on what we did in the past. We constantly push and motivate each other every day to get better. And of course, my relationships with my friends help. One of my roommates recently lost his mother to a long battle with cancer. He’s an only child like me and his father passed away when he was younger. So, when I watch how he goes about each day and see his courage and faith, I understand the importance of keeping things in perspective.

Q: I am sure the requests for your time and energy have increased exponentially.  How have you managed to stay focused on academics and football, while becoming the student-athlete face of the program?

A: Yes, my schedule is very busy, but I guess I’ve gotten used to the demands after years of juggling an active academic, athletic, and social routine. Over the years, I’ve learned to effectively manage my time. At the start of each week, I create a plan of all of my commitments and assignments and then I work to check items off the list. I try to compartmentalize my attention. I focus on academics during the hours designated for class and the time set aside to study. I then give football my full attention during my football hours. And whatever time is left, I use to rest, volunteer, and spend with friends. No matter what I’m working on, it’s important that I be productive doing it, because my time later in the day has to be focused on the next task at hand.

Q: Most people by now know you are an aerospace engineering major, but few realize you now have your credits for a business minor.  Is an MBA in your future down the road?

A: Yes, I could see myself continuing to get an MBA degree or more likely an engineering graduate degree. Since my goal is to eventually run my own business, my dad, whose background is in finance, emphasized the importance of me having a solid business foundation to support that goal. With all of the requisite hours for my aerospace engineering major and the Chancellor’s Honor Program, it hasn’t been easy adding the additional course load required for the business administration minor. But, I’m confident it’s going to pay huge dividends when I leave college and go out into the workforce.

Q: Let’s say everything went right this year and you win the Heisman.  Have you decided yet if you are going to stay for your senior year and complete the degree or head out to the NFL and come back later? 

A: Well that would be a nice problem to have, but I have not looked that far ahead honestly. My focus right now is to be the best quarterback and leader I can be for our team and to successfully get through my fall classes. I can’t worry about next spring or next year when there is so much that we have to do to accomplish the goals that we have set for this season.

 Q: Your on-the-field play was greatly improved from year 1 to 2.  What were the keys to your off-season preparation that helped with that?  Anything special you did this off-season to help prepare?

A: Every physical and mental rep you get in sports is really important, so getting the opportunity to play my freshman and sophomore seasons certainly helped. During my off-season preparation, I focus on figuring out the areas that I need to improve most, and then I work to make the improvements. This off-season, I worked with my quarterback trainer and focused on individual quarterback drills and film study. Early in the summer, I had the opportunity to volunteer as a college counselor at our UT Arsenal Camp hosted by Jon Gruden, the NIKE Elite 11 Camp in Oregon, and the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana. I got great technique and strategy tips being around the elite coaches at those camps. I also organized player-led workout sessions with my teammates throughout the summer. Our QB/WR group not only worked on routes and coverages on the field, but we also did cross-study sessions with the other position groups. This gave me and other upperclassmen an opportunity to help the younger players understand how to prepare for the season. Our trainers said that our player-run sessions this summer were the most organized and efficient that they have seen for our team.

Q: You were able to do an internship this summer for Pratt and Whitney.  Describe that experience.

A: I had a fantastic time during my internship at Pratt and Whitney. I was assigned to the Systems Engineering & Validation Division at their West Palm Beach facility. The department is responsible for testing the most advanced engine in aviation history—the F135 propulsion system. This engine is used in the military’s F-35 Lightning II tactical aircraft. Going into the assignment, I didn’t know what to expect in terms of how much I would be allowed to do, but my supervisor David Fisher, a UT alum, and manager Mark Tracy were extremely supportive. They allowed me to be very hands-on in the process and gave me the autonomy to do the work. It was our responsibility to test the basic reliability of the engine design to identify any potential issues before they crop up in service. During the assignment, I was able to gain invaluable work experience and had an incredible opportunity to see several career paths offered by an industry leader in aerospace engineering.

Q: What do you see yourself doing in 20 years?

A: Wow, 20 years from now would be more than double my age. In that time, I want to be working as an executive at an aerospace engineering firm, focusing on aviation design, or hopefully running my own company in the field.

Q: What is the best advice you were ever given?

A: I’ve received a lot of good advice over the years. If I had to narrow it down to my top three, I would say the best pieces of advice came from:

1) Jon Gordon, who is the author of self-help books like The Energy Bus and recently released You Win in the Locker Room First. He has spoken to our team on several occasions. When my days are stressful I think about his comments – “Every day focus on your purpose. Remember why you do what you do. We don’t get burned out because of what we do. We get burned out because we forget why we do it.”

2) When I face negativity, I am encouraged by a message that Pastor Jeff Jackson, from my church back home, shared in one of his sermons – “Sometimes you have to accept that not everyone is happy that you are blessed.”

And then, my parents have always told me, “Never allow anyone to limit your goal or your dreams. Your potential or value is never based on someone else’s inability to see your worth.”

Q: How would you say you have improved compared to when you started as a freshman?

A: It’s hard to believe that I’m starting my third year in college. Over the last two years, I would say I’ve gotten better at analyzing film. Our new offensive coordinator Mike DeBord and GA Nick Sheridan have done a great job helping our quarterback group critique what we see in the film room and then take it out to the field to work on. This summer our sports technology coordinator Joe Harrington developed his own virtual reality systems which has really been helpful too. I can put on the goggles and basically be back on the field analyzing my reads and getting more reps with his virtual technology.

Todd Kelly, Jr.

Q: You came in as a freshman in 2014 and instantly got on the field, earning 2014 Freshman All-SEC Team honors.  How would you grade your freshman year both in the classroom and on the field?

A: I was very pleased with my transition and overall success both off and on the football field my freshman year simply because it was such a culture change. Coming from a small private school, The Webb School of Knoxville, to a large university, The University of Tennessee, forced me to adjust to my new surroundings as quickly as possible.

Q: You mother is a well-respected principal of West Valley Middle School in Knoxville and your father played at UTK and in the NFL.  How have they shaped your approach to life on and off the field and do they put more pressure on you to perform in class or on the field? 

A: I’m thankful for having loving and caring parents who simply want me to give my absolute best in everything I do and to take pride in what I do each and every day. They both believe that even in times of trial and error, if I have given my best then that is all I can do and to learn from my mistakes so I won’t make them again.

Q: What do you see yourself doing in 20 years?

A: Twenty years from now I can see myself supporting a family of my own as an orthopedic surgeon for some sort of athletic team. That is my ultimate goal and has been for some time now.

Q: How have you enjoyed your engineering classes so far? 

A: So far, my engineering career has been challenging as well as fun to balance out as a pretty good success. Trying to balance academics and athletics is definitely a great challenge, but I take pride in it each and every day I wake up and go to class.

Q: What inspired you to take Biomedical Engineering as a major?

A: My friend’s mom was a biomedical engineer and had heard of my interest in the medical department. Once I had heard about the major and everything it covers, I knew it was the right route for me to take as a college undergraduate student.

Q: Your sister is a cheerleader for Alabama.  What is that dynamic like in the family on game week?

A: She just graduated from the University of Alabama so it is definitely a house divided, but she as well as my parents supports me in every game I play in and vice versa when it comes to watching her cheer on Saturdays.

Q: Does being engineering majors from the same department create a closer friendship between you, Joshua, and Alex?

A: I believe becoming an engineer has made my relationship with football players Alex Ellis and Joshua Dobbs a lot closer simply because we realize the importance of being a student first and an athlete second. As time progresses, the entire football team is doing a better and better job of implementing this idea.

Q: Who do you consider your biggest role-model?

A: My biggest role model is my father. He currently sales surgical equipment around the southeast and originally inspired me to take part in the medical industry.

Q: How would you say you are different now compared to when you started as a freshman?

A: Now that I have a year under my belt, I know the time management and study skills it takes to succeed on and off of the field whether in a math class or in a position meeting for football. With this being said, my schedule will be set each and every day so that my specific goals can be reached as a student-athlete.

 Alex Ellis

Q: What do you see yourself doing in 20 years?

A: I have no idea where exactly I will be in twenty years or what I’ll be doing but hopefully I will be living close to my family and we are all able to walk to a small Mexican restaurant called Agave in a little beach town called Lewis back home in Delaware. Hopefully we’ll go there on our summer nights off, all together, enjoying each other’s company and during the day enjoy the beach and do a little surfing. So, I don’t have a definite view of what I’m going to be doing, but as long as I have good friends and family, and if through busy work schedules we can find time to do those things once a week then I know I’m living the dream.

Q: How have you enjoyed your engineering classes so far? 

A: Engineering has definitely been a challenge, but it is worth the hard work. I graduate in the spring so I’m looking forward to that.

Q: What inspired you to take Biomedical Engineering as a major?

A: My whole family is part of the medical field and I wanted to follow in their footsteps. Biomedical engineering interests me and there are so many areas that can be explored in the medical field.

Q: Does being engineering majors from the same department create a closer friendship between you, Joshua, and Todd?

A: I feel like having the same majors definitely give us somebody to lean on because when it gets tough in the engineering department, it’s nice to know someone going through the same struggles.

Q: Who do you consider your biggest role-model?

A: There are many coaches, teachers, and friends from my hometown, Delmar, and UT who have impacted my life and who I look up to and that I’m thankful for. But, ultimately my biggest role models are my teammates—they are my family. Each of them pushes me in a way that has made me the man I am today and I wouldn’t trade them for the world.

Q: How would you say you are different now compared to when you started as a freshman?

 A: As a freshman, I wish I knew what I know now and had things together then like I do now, but from freshmen year to senior year it’s definitely been a blast. I don’t feel like I’ve changed dramatically, but I do feel like the people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had over the past four years have changed me into a better person.