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Navy's Dobbs finds winning formula with football, faith

The conversation took place in the kitchen of Thomas Cobb's home in Douglasville, Ga., the summer that Ricky Dobbs left for the Naval Academy Preparatory School.

Cobb, who had coached his nephew in youth football and took Dobbs into his home in the eighth grade when Dobbs' mother battled addictions to alcohol and crack cocaine, had the next five years all planned for a teenager who once predicted he would someday become the president of the United States.

"He said that if I could start [for Navy] by my sophomore year, then the sky's the limit with this offense and I could be up for a Heisman Trophy, All-American candidate, all of this stuff," Dobbs recalled "I find it funny that everything that he said would happen in my life came true. He always said that I had that magic and he said that the magic comes from the chief magician.

"I play with a higher being, and that's what he's instilled in me."

As Dobbs embarks on the final season of his career at Navy against Maryland Monday at M&T Bank Stadium — a career that began in essence when Dobbs took over as a sophomore for a pair of injured senior quarterbacks and led the team to victory in three games — he is being mentioned as a candidate for the Heisman and other prestigious college football awards.

"We saw glimpses that this kid has a chance to be special," said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, who in his first season in 2008 was initially hesitant to hand the reigns to the team's precision triple option offense over to Dobbs because of his inconsistent practice habits. "All of his accomplishments are hard to foresee. He keeps doing things that amaze me."

Many longtime Navy fans are calling Dobbs a modern-day Roger Staubach, but he is more like a recent star at another school whose impact was felt on and off the field. Even some of Dobbs' relatives back home outside Atlanta have mentioned the similarities to Tim Tebow, the former Florida star and Heisman Trophy winner now with the Denver Broncos, given the way the two quarterbacks play and pray.

Though not a huge football fan himself, Dobbs was well aware of Tebow's persona as a Gator,.

"When I was a freshman and sophomore watching, that's kind of how I envisioned myself," Dobbs said. "There's a lot of similarities between both of us because of the mindset. He's one who gives all the glory to God just like myself. He's just an instrument, like me. He's not scared of putting it (his religious belief) out there. There' are very few who get a lot of limelight like him who will do that."

Niumatalolo sees the same traits in Dobbs.

"Strong, spiritual background, not embarrassed about his beliefs, just a good human being, very good football player," Niumatalolo said recently. "Mentally tough young man, he willed us to win games. There's nothing that he thinks he can't accomplish."

Niumatalolo also understands the downfall to such a comparison to Tebow.

"I don't know him, but some people might have been turned off," Niumatalolo said of Tebow. "To me it seems genuine. Tim Tebow seems like a great human being, It's the same thing with Ricky, his infectious personality, who he is, his positive thinking, all these goals he has, it's not a fluke, it's not some sort of promotion, that's just who he is."

Said Thomas Cobb, "He definitely plays the game with a spiritual sense. He'll go out there and play with a certain scripture or psalm in his mind, like Tebow did."

If anything, Dobbs is Tebow without the hype. There are no Heisman campaigns coming out of Annapolis, though former Heisman winner Andre Ware, now an ESPN analyst, said recently on national television that Dobbs is his dark-horse candidate for college football's most coveted award.

Tebow was nationally-known before he arrived in Gainesville; Dobbs had to break Tebow's single-season NCAA record for touchdowns by a quarterback last year to get noticed.

Given Dobbs' well-publicized goal of becoming president in 2040, he looks at the attention he is now receiving as on the job training.

"In a way I kind of see it as preparing me," said Dobbs, who received a letter of encouragement from former President Jimmy Carter, a fellow Georgian and Naval Academy graduate, was recognized by Congress and received the key to the city in his hometown this summer. "Sometimes it is tough, but I fall back to my faith, God won't put more on me than I can bear. I can handle it, it's just my mindset and the way I try to take it on."

Considering what Dobbs has already endured in his life — in particular watching his mother, Barbara Cobb, struggle with drugs and alcohol, get clean and then nearly die during open heart surgery — what has happened the past four years has not been that difficult. Even last year, when he played with a cracked kneecap that required surgery a few weeks after Navy finished a 10-4 season with a 35-13 win over Missouri in the Texas Bowl.

"Playing with the pain was tough," Dobbs said. "The post-game was definitely tough to deal with. To keep from feeling worse the next day, the night of the game I would go to sleep really late, like 4 or 5 in the morning and I thought it was a way of tricking my body. If I had gone right to bed, I would have woke up super sore. I would get up, go to church, then take a nap. It worked. I don't know how good it was for my body, but it worked."

Dobbs, whose post-graduate military plans will be in surface warfare for the Navy, has aspirations of playing in the NFL, but at 6-foot-1 and 203 pounds, he will likely have to change the perception that he is strictly an option quarterback or possibly change his position..

"I would love to play quarterback," said Dobbs, whose strong throwing arm has made him a more viable candidate for the pros than most option quarterbacks, including Georgia Tech's Joshua Nesbitt. "That's what I can see myself playing, but I can see myself playing any position."

Cobb said that NFL scouts shouldn't dismiss Dobbs for a lack of size — he's about the same height and weight of New Orleans Saints star Drew Brees — or Navy's lack of a passsing game.

"With Ricky, you can't ever count him out," said Cobb, who began coaching his nephew when Dobbs was 7 years old and taught him a sophicated passing offense run out of a shotgun.

The NFL is a long way off and Dobbs is trying to build on last season's success. Admittedly, Niumatalolo is a little worried that the recent rush of attention, including stories in Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com, might distract a player who earlier in his career had issues with concentrating in practice.

"Making sure that he stays focused on the essentials," Niumatalolo said. "Not intentionally, because he doesn't have a big head, but maybe through all these things kind of loses of sight of the fact that he has to prepare himself to be the best quarterback."

His uncle believes that Dobbs stays grounded because of his strong faith and that "I don't think it's hit him yet what he's done. If it has, he hasn't shown it."

While not among the Heisman favorites going into the season, a few games putting up the kind of numbers he has the past two years should help him get on the list with the likes of Alabama running back Mark Ingram, the reigning Heisman winner, and others from higher-profile programs.

The Heisman presentation is the night of the Army-Navy game on Dec. 12.

"It's been cool just having my name mentioned this far," Dobbs said. "To be in that room, would be an absolute honor. I just look at is as, I'm blessed to have that opportunity."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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