By Jason Huber. February 18, 2017. BUIES CREEK, NC It was the first game of the 2016 college football season for true freshman tight end Aaron Dobbins — and even though still a freshman he had just been named the backup tight end for the Campbell University Fighting Camels.
COVER IMAGE: Aaron Dobbins was a star high school QB and transitioning to tight end on the NCAA Division I level at Campbell — when the unthinkable happened. Photographic image by David Rogers for Blowing Rock News
Just a few months removed from graduating Watauga High School, Dobbins was making the transition from quarterback to tight end. He proved during summer and fall workouts that he was up for the challenge and could contribute to the team immediately.
It was on the first play of his freshman season that Dobbins’ collegiate football career took a turn for the worse. It was the first kickoff of the year and he was starting on the kickoff return team. As the play developed, he felt his knee pop.
Not feeling too much pain, Dobbins returned to the field for the Camels’ first offensive series — and that is when he felt the sharp pain in his knee, which led to a missed blocked.
After just two plays, it was the final action of Dobbins’ freshman season.
As the play developed…he heard his knee pop.
“I am watching him and I’m like, ‘You gotta be kidding me!’ I have seen him make that block for the last 30 days,” recalled Campbell tight ends coach Duncan McLaurin. “He previously hit his knee, and he wouldn’t come out and would try it one more time. Then he hit the ground and it was bad when he was unable to change direction.”
Dobbins knew something was wrong with his knee. After a couple of MRI tests, he was diagnosed with a torn meniscus cartilage in his left leg. Doctors then discovered a defect in his cartilage, causing Dobbins to get micro fracture surgery. It is a surgery that can sometimes end a football player’s career.
Now six months later, Dobbins is almost at a 100 percent. He is back training in winter workouts with the Camels and is hoping to once again prove to his coaches that he is capable of being the starting tight end for the 2017 season.
“It was more of getting back out onto the field,” Dobbins explained, “but at the same time I love football. It was kind of strange for me to think that I might not ever play again. I didn’t want to let the coaches or my teammates down. It is tough to get through rehab, but it would only help me get back onto the field and let my next few years be better.”
Going through tough transitions was nothing new for Dobbins. As a starting quarterback at Watauga, Dobbins recognized his junior year that due to do the Pioneers triple-threat offense, it was a possibility that he’d have to switch positions to play for an NCAA Division I college or university.
Entering his fourth year as a tight ends coach, McLaurin has seen a lot of success converting high school quarterbacks to tight ends, and saw the potential in Dobbins to be one of those right away.
“One of my philosophies as a tight end coach,” noted McLaurin, “is that I always look for guys playing quarterback that have good height and size and are very dynamic, tough runners and leaders. I try to take those kids who are being passed up for whatever reason as quarterbacks and make them tight ends. It has been a good formula, and a great recipe of success for me at this level.”
It was strange for me to think that I might not ever play again.
Although he had never played anything besides the quarterback position, Dobbins made the transition to tight end. Even with five other tight ends on the roster, Dobbins made a quick impression with coaches.
“He came into camp dominating,” McLaurin said. “Never having played tight end before and learning the offense wasn’t much because he is so smart. He goes out onto the field and we had injuries early on and we took reps. He never complained and put his nose to the grass, kept working, and made plays.”
Senior starting tight end Austin Fleming also made the switch from quarterback to tight end, and became a big mentor for Dobbins’ learning curve at Campbell.
“I knew [Austin] Fleming would be getting most of the tight end playing time. He was a senior, a big leader and big player,” Dobbins said. “I was number two on the depth chart, and we had a good number of formations — and personnel groups that had two tight ends in it.”
Head coach Mike Minter, a former NFL player for the Carolina Panthers, said the biggest reason Dobbins worked his way up the depth chart was because of his strong IQ.
“Anytime that a young guy is going to be able to play football early he has to have the ability to pick up the plays,” Minter said. “That’s what stops young players from playing. Whether in the NFL or college, the thing that stops people from playing is not knowing the plays because the game moves so fast. He was able to pick it up and play fast in practice and slowly caught the eyes of the coach.”
Unfortunately for Dobbins, the meniscus tear and micro fracture surgery after the first game of the season became a major blow for his freshman year goals.
“Having all the anxiety and excitement,” Dobbins said in reliving that season opener, “and running out of the tunnel and being all excited for the first game…Once it happened I didn’t know how serious it was and thought I could be back soon. When I had an MRI and got the news, it was a bummer because all that work I put in throughout the summer and fall. It accumulated into two plays, which stinks.”
Only 76% of NFL players return the following year from micro fracture surgery.
But for Dobbins it was just a minor setback and sets up a major comeback.
“The doctors told me there was a good chance I might never play football again,” Dobbins said. “But they also said if I took my rehab seriously and really focused, there was a chance..”
Only 76 percent of NFL players return the following year from micro fracture surgery. Notable players such as Jadeveon Clowney and Myles Jack are two of the more recent NFL players to have made that journey.
“He went the extra mile with his training,” McLaurin said. “He was there before and after, and even stayed extra. He approached getting that knee recovered the way he approached learning the offense and his academics. He approached it the correct way, and went above and beyond, and now he is reaping the benefits.”
The recovery gave Dobbins a redshirting opportunity. Majoring in biology and hoping to attend medical school after college, Dobbins not only went through rehab, but also made the schools President’s List for students with a 3.9 or higher GPA in only his first semester.
I never really met anybody as talented as he is off the field.
“I never really met anybody as talented as he is off the field. He is brilliant and he has one of the highest characters of anybody I have ever met,” McLaurin said. “He is very focused, very mentally tough, a great listener, can apply things and has great poise. He is a great human being in just the way he treats other people.”
Having a love for football in addition to focusing on academics is just two of the main things Minter looks for when recruiting a football player.
“Does he love football and have the enthusiasm for being a college student athlete? And will he work hard to become the best he can be? You can check those two boxes off with an A+,” Minter said. “He has the ability to take information and process it , and that is what football is. It didn’t surprise us at all that he had the ability to do that.”
The combination of his work ethic and love for the game led to Dobbins getting ahead of his recovery. Dobbins used his rehab time to watch film, adjust to college life and prepare for the upcoming season.
“At times it gets tough. There are days you run and workout with the team, and then you have to go do your own workouts with the trainers,” Dobbins said. “Right now I am glad I went through rehab. I feel better, I’ve had a fast recovery to this point, and I just need to keep working hard, and hopefully results will come from that.”
Coaches have noticed Dobbins’ work ethic and dedication to get back on to the field, and there is nothing but optimism from everyone.
“It will help him tremendously. My goal for him is to get drafted (into the NFL). I think he has that kind of ceiling,” McLaurin said. “I would love for him to walk across the stage with his degree from Campbell University — and he then attends medical school goes to the NFL.”