NFL Draft: For Herd's Dobson, transition to NFL is next challenge
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- About eight months ago, Aaron Dobson was sitting in a conference room at the Department of Environmental Protection, autographing Marshall football posters as the anticipation for the 2012 college season grew.
Fast-forward to this past Saturday. Dobson was at another table signing autographs, this time at Collectibles Etc. in Cross Lanes.
He still was signing memories of his Thundering Herd career - pictures of big catches and other Marshall keepsakes fans toted in - but the anticipation this time was a little different.
It wasn't just with thoughts of next season. Dobson's thoughts stretched further into the future. Starting tonight and until as late as Saturday, Dobson will be sitting surrounded by family, waiting for the phone call that reveals his NFL future. He's expected to be an early-round pick in this year's NFL Draft, and wants to show everyone that West Virginians can thrive at the highest levels of football.
"It's a crazy feeling just to not know where you're going to end up, what round you're going to go in, how long you're going to wait until your name's called, if your name's called," he said. "There's a lot of stuff that plays into it. But at the same time, it's exciting, just to be in a position I've been waiting for since I've been 6. I've been dreaming of this."
As a child, those dreams were a little broader. Be it the NFL or the NBA, he wanted to be a professional athlete. And Dobson admits that in high school, he leaned more toward basketball. He was a two-time all-state first team pick on the court, leading South Charleston to consecutive Class AAA state runner-up finishes. Yet as he grew older, he realized his size and physical skills, commonplace in basketball, were unique in football.
He was highly decorated on the gridiron as well, the 2008 Kennedy Award runner-up as a senior when he led the Black Eagles to the Class AAA state title. Dobson knew football was his future.
But did college football know Dobson was in its future? The Herd was the only Football Bowl Subdivision team that offered him a scholarship. He had gone to camps at Rutgers and Tennessee, but Dobson's mother Angela said that, despite great performances at those camps, he had popped up on the recruiting radar just a little too late.
"The Rutgers coach said they'd already extended all their wide receiver offers," she said. "He said, 'We don't even recruit West Virginia. Most West Virginians are West Virginia fans. We can go to Florida and see 20 kids or come to West Virginia and just see one.' "
The entrance to FBS football came in a phone call from Marshall after the Dobson family arrived home from church the Sunday after the Class AAA football championship.
"He was ready right there and knew this was where he was going," Angela Dobson said. "I really think it was the best decision for him. It was where he needed to be."
As a sophomore, Dobson led the Herd in catches and receiving yards and tied for the lead with five touchdown receptions. As a junior, that touchdown total rocketed from five to 12, including one that seemingly defied physics. His diving, one-handed, backhanded scoring grab against East Carolina was one of ESPN's top plays of 2011.
Dobson's father Bobby was watching with his brother-in-law on the other side of the stadium when his son made the catch. He originally thought Aaron was trying to bat the pass away from a defender, but the celebration in that corner changed his mind.
"That little group of fans went nuts and we were like, there's no way he could have caught that," he said. "When he came out (after the game), I said, 'This isn't Dad talking. That was a heck of a catch. This isn't me being a dad. That was one of the best I've ever seen.' "
It made Dobson a YouTube sensation - one clip of the catch has more than 1.8 million views - and that catch made him the focus of Marshall's 2012 football promotions.
But the out-of-this-world senior season many expected didn't materialize. Losing all but one play over three games to a November knee injury didn't help. And Marshall's offense also evolved. Opponents made stopping Dobson their top priority, so he caught only three touchdowns in 2012. But defenses' focus on Dobson helped allow slot receiver Tommy Shuler to catch a school record 110 passes and tight end Gator Hoskins to catch 10 touchdowns.
Still, Dobson was named to the all-C-USA second team with a career-high 57 catches for 679 yards.
"I think I did well," Dobson said. "I don't think it was the senior year I wanted, personally. I just did what I could do to help my team. I still showed that I could play football. I still helped myself in ways that, if I couldn't get the ball, I wouldn't let it frustrate me and could still do what I can do."
The NFL scouts weren't scared away. Dobson impressed them during Senior Bowl practices. A tweaked hamstring kept him from performing on-field drills at the NFL Combine, but he ran 40-yard dashes in the 4.4-second range at Marshall's pro day. ESPN NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. sees Dobson as a third-round pick, while NFL Network expert Mike Mayock thinks his draft value starts in the late second round.
Both think he's raw, but are impressed with his 6-foot-23/4 inch, 210-pound frame and physical abilities.
"I remember being at the West Virginia pro day and the day before that was Marshall's," Mayock said, "and a lot of the scouts were coming from Marshall to West Virginia and they were kind of buzzing about how well this kid caught the ball on a 20-degree windy day outdoors at Marshall. So I think that makes an impression on teams, especially the cold weather teams. He's used to it. It doesn't bother him and he can actually thrive.
"I really like the kid. I think he could end up being a better NFL player than he was a college player."
Marshall offensive coordinator Bill Legg said the athleticism Dobson was blessed with is one of the reasons he's prominent on the NFL draft radar. He also heeded the lessons of quality coaches throughout his career to further hone his physical gifts.
"At the end of the day," Legg said, "you take talent, you take intelligence, you take a willingness to work with some guys that know what they're doing, that can give him a chance to learn how to get in and out of breaks, to get off against the press and so on. Those things pay dividends."
If Dobson gets drafted, he'll join an exclusive group of West Virginians picked on draft day.
The last time a Mountain State player was chosen in the NFL Draft was 2004, when former Capital High and Ohio State standout Darrion Scott was taken in the third round by the Minnesota Vikings.
"I don't try to make it pressure, but it is," Dobson said. "I just want to put my city on the map, just to let everyone know that athletes do come from here. Stop overlooking us. And I want to let the younger guys know that they can make it, because I did it."
Dobson appreciates that his journey through football, from high school to college to now, has happened so close to home. He's been able to enjoy his successes with his family and show those from outside West Virginia that this area continues to produce premium talent.
"I've been playing, probably, in front of the same group of fans since I was 14 or 15 years old," he said. "They've seen me grow and mature and get better as a football player and as a man."
Now football will take him elsewhere, maybe New England, maybe Detroit, maybe Green Bay. Bobby Dobson said his son always has looked forward in life. In his youth, he wanted to be a Black Eagle. In high school, he wanted to be a Division I football player. Now life as an NFL player could be close at hand.
"He always had that dream of having the opportunity of playing at the next level," Bobby Dobson said. "So now he's standing at the doorstep of making that dream come true."
Contact sportswriter Derek Redd at email@example.com or 304-348-1712. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/marshall. Follow him on Twitter @derekredd.