Reaching for the sky
HUNTINGTON - Four years ago, when Aaron Dobson was finishing up an all-state career as a wide receiver at Class AAA state champion South Charleston, there wasn't much of a bidding war, if you will, for his services in college.
Despite Dobson's good size (now at 6-foot-3, 204 pounds), speed and obvious athletic skills, he caused little commotion among Division I bounty hunters.
In fact, his scholarship offer to play at Marshall was the only one he got from the big boys, along with a couple from former I-AAs Hofstra and Delaware and a bushel of interest from the West Virginia Conference.
But Dobson is turning out to be quite a catch for the Thundering Herd and perhaps a poster child for current West Virginia high school players seeking to land that elusive D-1 full ride.
After being thrown into the fire as a true freshman, he's already been Marshall's top receiver each of the past two seasons and is poised to make a run at All-Conference USA honors this year.
He and the rest of his Thundering Herd teammates start to get a leg up on those individual and team goals with the start of spring practice, which reached a second workout Thursday at Joan C. Edwards Stadium.
"Team goals come first,'' said Herd receivers coach Gerad Parker, "and I know A.D.'s got that direction, too, but individually the sky's the limit for him. If he does what we talk about and he stays driven and on fire - like a guy like Jerry Rice did - and if he works and sweats and earns what he gets and improves his game, the sky's the limit for him.
"I expect him to be all-conference and I expect him to have a chance to get national honors as well, as he knows that's what we expect of him. I believe that with all my heart that he's an NFL wideout. I do. I know that. Now how good and how long depends on what he does and how he works and what he continues to do with his future.''
Dobson's not only been catching a lot of balls for the Herd the past three years, he's also been catching a lot of attention for his highlight-reel plays.
"I've just got to build on that,'' Dobson said Thursday following practice. "I've just got to keep pushing forward. I made a couple great catches last year, and I want to make a couple more catches this year and build onto what I've already done.''
Parker, who's in his second year as receivers coach on Doc Holliday's staff, has started to expect the spectacular from Dobson. But Parker knows that for Dobson to continue his development, he's got to keep doing the little things right.
"He stays grounded, but I help him,'' Parker said. "It's my job to make him [that way] because he's got room and I tell him there's always something to improve on. He knows right now there's things we need him to improve on to get him ready for next year and the next level. And A.D. understands that. It's a continual process to make sure I find ways to push him. He's made me a better coach, and I want to find ways to make him get better for the future.''
One of the ways helping keep Dobson level-headed is taking on the responsibilities of a senior leader with all the young receiving prospects the Herd has on its roster.
"We've got three total seniors,'' Parker said, "and A.D.'s a guy that's developed not only into a player, but he's starting to understand what we want and he's also becoming a coach.
"I tell him and the guys all the time in the meeting room that if you start talking the same language [as a coach], then you can coach it. That takes away from what I do, but I never want my pride to get in the way. A.D's turning into a coach - he's got all the same answers I do, and he can teach those guys what I can, and that's what we're looking for.''
After a stellar 2011 season, Dobson considered declaring himself eligible for this year's NFL draft and initially submitted the proper paperwork, but ultimately decided to play his final year in the Green and White.
"I definitely feel like I did the right thing,'' Dobson said. "I always wanted to get my degree, and that's what it's going to work out like. Just like Vinny [Curry] followed Coach Holliday's plan last year, and it worked out great. Vinny should be a high draft pick. I put all my trust in Coach Holliday.''
Curry, a lineman and C-USA's defensive player of the year last season, figures to be a high NFL draft pick next month after coming back for his senior year at MU.
"I'd definitely love to be picked,'' Dobson said, "and I'm going to work hard to be picked in the NFL draft next year.''
Dobson's a rare West Virginia high school product who has an impact career at one of the state's two major colleges.
Both Marshall and WVU currently have 13 state products on their rosters, with six of the Mountaineers' group being on scholarship (Josh Jenkins, Corey Smith, Wes Tonkery, Cody Clay, Taige Redman, Cole Bowers) and five of the Herd's (Dobson, Raheem Waiters, C.J. Crawford, Derek Mitchell, Clint Van Horn).
That's just 11 state players on scholarship competing at the highest level of college football in West Virginia. The last impact in-state player for the Herd was probably offensive lineman Doug Legursky from Beckley (2004-07), who now plays for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Dobson doesn't understand why so few state players get the chance to see if their skills translate into success at the NCAA Division I level, but he's certainly glad for his opportunity.
"I really have no idea why,'' he said. "I know there's a lot of sleepers in West Virginia. I know there's really not a lot of competition, whereas someone like Florida has competition. But there's some guys who can play, and I'm glad Marshall gave me the chance, and I'm just reaping the benefit of it. I think sometimes a lot of people get overlooked, and I'm just happy I got the opportunity to come here to play, and I'm doing my best.''
Dobson agrees that his story can perhaps serve as inspiration for other young football players in West Virginia trying to reach that level.
"I definitely want to give kids something to look forward to,'' he said. "I'm just from Charleston, West Virginia, man. Probably a lot of people won't even know that about me if it wasn't posted everywhere. But I just want to give the kids back in Charleston or anywhere in West Virginia [hope]. There's a chance you can get picked anywhere and do it big. The sky's the limit.''
Reach Rick Ryan at 304-348-5175 or firstname.lastname@example.org.