Wes Dothard has skill, instinct and experience, which has earned the two-time All-America linebacker some freedom in the Southern Conference's No. 1 defense.
Most of the time the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga fifth-year senior plays within the bounds of his Mike linebacker position, but he will improvise from time to time.
"I have some freedom, but [linebackers coach Rusty Wright] tries to get me out of doing that," Dothard said Thursday. 'He wants me to just do my assignment and not try to make every play on the field. He tries to limit that a little bit, but they give me a little freedom."
It's a freedom that Dothard has earned, head coach Russ Huesman said.
"He's got some great instincts," he said. "Wofford ran the trap option a couple of times [last week], and he sniffed that out fast and got to the quarterback pretty quick.
"He sees things, but you take the good with the bad. Sometimes he'll guess wrong ... but it's an educated guess based on what he's seeing. He'll take some chances, but he's been fantastic for us."
Dothard was first team All-SoCon the past two seasons and likely is headed for a third with 78 tackles and seven tackles for loss heading into Saturday's game at Samford.
It's a critical visit to Seibert Stadium for 18th-ranked UTC (8-2, 6-1), which will win the SoCon title outright with a victory against the Bulldogs (6-4, 4-2), who still have a shot at sharing the league title.
In his three previous games against Samford, Dothard has 22 tackles and a 43-yard fumble return. He has 292 career tackles and needs two more to move into eighth on UTC's all-time list.
Dothard had one of the best all-around games of his career last week against the Terriers, finishing with nine tackles, 2.5 for loss and a win-sealing interception on Wofford's final drive.
"I'm proud to say Wes is one of my best friends ... so for him to get that [interception], I was so happy," junior All-America defensive end Davis Tull said after the 20-10 win that clinched at least a share of the SoCon title for the Mocs. "I was dog-tired, I'm not going to lie. We had been pass rushing that whole series, so I couldn't celebrate with him, but when I saw it I was really, really happy for him."
Tull and Dothard are on the watch list for the Buck Buchanan Award, which goes to the best defensive player in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Dothard often is described as having "a nose for the ball." But if it wasn't for an ankle injury suffered by Shane Heatherly before the 2011 season, Dothard might not have had a chance to shine until late in his career. Heatherly was the starter and Dothard the backup going into the season, but the injury put Heatherly, who graduated last year, on the sideline for a while and Dothard has started every game since.
Bad knees sometimes keep Dothard from looking like he's one of the best linebackers in the FCS, but when the ball is snapped he usually is somewhere near the action.
"He just knows how to make plays," Huesman said. "He's a player and I love those kinds of guys."
Saturday's game is the SoCon game of the week and can be seen on ESPN3.com. ... UTC has won four in a row against the Bulldogs and leads the series 26-9-3. ... Tull and Samford linebacker Justin Shade share the SoCon lead in tackles for loss with 13. Shade leads the league with 104 tackles.
Contact John Frierson at email@example.com or 423-757-6268. Follow him at twitter.com/MocsBeat.
John Frierson is in his seventh year at the Times Free Press and seventh year covering University of Tennessee at Chattanooga athletics. The bulk of his time is spent covering Mocs football, but he also writes about women’s basketball and the big-picture issues and news involving the athletic department. A native of Athens, Ga., John grew up a few hundred yards from the University of Georgia campus. Instead of becoming a Bulldog he attended Ole ...