The natural instinct is to think that former star quarterback Ricky Dobbs is the reason sophomore defensive end Jamel Dobbs is playing football at Navy, given that they are distant cousins who grew up near each other in the suburbs of Atlanta.

Truth is, Jamel Dobbs never met his famous namesake until he showed up on his recruiting visit two years ago. Neither knew of any connection until assistant coach Ashley Ingram, who recruited both players, raised the possibilities and the players started talking about their respective families. They figured out that their grandfathers were first cousins.

"I had heard about him a little when he was in high school, but I never thought we were related. There are a lot of people named Dobbs down there," said Jamel Dobbs, who lost touch with his father's side of the family after his parents divorced when he was an infant.

Jamel Dobbs quickly found common ground with Ricky Dobbs in the way they balanced their love of football with a strong religious faith. Now Jamel Dobbs is on the verge of following his newfound cousin by starting for the Midshipmen as a sophomore when Navy opens its season Sept. 3 against Delaware.

As homesick as Ricky Dobbs was when he first arrived at the Naval Academy Preparatory School (NAPS), Jamel Dobbs had a ready-made role model and friend when he got to the academy last year.

"It was great to know I had that kind of family support," said Jamel Dobbs, who grew up as an only child in Ellenwood, Ga., about a 45-minute drive from where Ricky Dobbs grew up in Douglasville.

Jacquelyn Arnold, who raised her only child as a single parent, said that she could tell Ricky Dobbs was steering her son in the right direction.

"Ricky is such a gentleman," Arnold said. "I would hear from Jamel, 'Oh I went to church with Ricky' or 'I went to dinner with Ricky'. I thought it was such a blessing that Jamel had people like Ricky and Jabaree (Tuani)."

Ricky Dobbs, who is now coaching at the Naval Academy Preparatory School, said that he made sure to let his younger relative know "there was someone in his corner" but showed it with the same "tough love" that he provided other plebes in helping them adjust to academy life and Division I football.

The valedictorian of his class at Cedar Grove High School, Jamel Dobbs said having his cousin there was only a small part of the reason he chose Navy.

"I liked the challenge academically, I liked the structure and also the opportunities (after graduation)," he said. "When I came for my visit I could tell everyone was on the same path."

From a football standpoint, a bigger role model for Dobbs was Tuani, the team's star defensive end. They seemed more like brothers, nearly identical in build as well as in their athleticism and temperament. Defensive coordinator Buddy Green credits Tuani, now a senior co-captain, with the progress Dobbs has made.

"He's really taken him under his wing, getting on him and showing him how to play the game," Green said.

After getting in for only four snaps as a freshman, all in a blowout win over East Carolina, Dobbs started making rapid improvement during spring practice and continued to progress in weight training sessions over the summer.

"He got stronger, faster, he's starting to mature a bit," Green said. "[Strength and conditioning] Coach [Mike] Brass did a great job with him over the summer."

Tuani, a senior co-captain who has started since early in his freshman year, said that Dobbs is already "one of the strongest and fastest guys on the team" but will have some adjustments to make because of the drastic change in his role.

"It's definitely a lot different," Tuani said. "Getting on the field and getting reps, up to 30, 40 or 50 a game. In a game you have those 10-play, 13-play drives and you definitely get gassed."

Green said he will remain patient with Dobbs, one of eight new starters on defense.

"The only way to get better is experience. The first game he's going to make mistakes, but he's got to play the game and the only way to get better is to play," Green said. "He's getting better each day. He's starting to mature."

Like his two mentors, Dobbs came to Navy with something to prove. Ricky Dobbs was recruited by Georgia Tech, but the Yellow Jackets wanted to convert him to defensive back. Like Tuani, Dobbs was told by many Division I schools that he was too short to play defensive end.