On Sept. 13, 2015, Dakota Dozier ’14 did something no other Furman graduate has ever done: Play in an NFL game as an offensive lineman. He wasn’t exactly expecting it.
Dozier had watched from the sideline for all 16 games of his rookie season in 2014, and that’s where he was for the first half against the Cleveland Browns in the 2015 season opener. But with 7:57 to go in the third quarter and the Jets facing third-and-goal from the 1, starting center Nick Mangold was injured and the name “Dozier” rang out.
Go time had finally arrived.
“It was just like, well, here it is. It’s time to play,” Dozier said. “I wanted to go out there and do my best.”
Dozier found himself staring across the neutral zone at rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton from the University of Washington, the ball in his right hand as he waited for Ryan Fitzpatrick’s signal to snap. Moments later, Dozier was driving his 6-foot, 4-inch, 310-pound body forward, helping give the quarterback time to find receiver Brandon Marshall on a fade in the end zone.
The result was a touchdown on Dozier’s first pro play. “It was pretty sweet,” he said. “Obviously, I had no idea I was the first Furman alum that had ever played (offensive line in the NFL), but it was an awesome experience.”
Mangold returned quickly, and Dozier went back to the bench for the most part—though he did end up appearing briefly in Jets’ first five games as they finished 10-6 but failed to make the playoffs. Now, entering his third season, Dozier faces a key point in his career.
The offensive line is aging and lacking in talent, and New York has a new coach in Todd Bowles. There may never be a better chance for Dozier, who was unable to crack the rotation last year despite injuries to Mangold and Willie Colon, to force his way into a starting role.
Training camp started July 27 in Florham Park, N.J., and Dozier, Brent Qvale and Ben Ijalana have been the Jets’ top backups, with Dozier taking snaps with the first team for several days at both left and right guard as starters James Carpenter and Brian Winters recovered from injuries.
Though all of his 2015 game action came at center, Dozier, a left tackle at Furman, is happy to play wherever he can to get on the field. As of Friday, Dozier is listed as the backup to James Carpenter at left guard on the team’s official depth chart.
“I’ve been playing guard all this camp. I played a lot of center in the offseason, so I’m just trying to contribute as much as I can and go where the coach tells me to go,” he said. “As time goes on here, I do want to contribute more. But I’ve got to earn it. Nothing is given, especially in this league.”
That’s for sure. NFL contracts are not guaranteed, and Dozier could be cut at any moment. Being second on the depth chart is a strong sign his job is safe, however, with the final preseason game scheduled for Aug. 27, but he won’t know for sure until rosters are trimmed to 75 on Aug. 30 and then down to the 53-man limit on Sept. 3.
Dozier came to Furman from Brookland-Cayce High School in Cayce, S.C., and he chose the Paladins over Appalachian State–the only other Division I program to offer him a scholarship. He turned out to be a huge recruiting coup, starting for four years and graduating with a degree in health and exercise science as one of the finest players in Furman history.
When the Jets selected Dozier in the fourth round, 137th overall, in 2014 he became the highest Furman draft pick since John Keith ’00 was taken 108th by the San Francisco 49ers and the first Paladin offensive lineman selected since Olin Hill ’63 in 1963. Dozier called it “a wonderful feeling, a day I’ll never forget,” but as much as that phone call from then-coach Rex Ryan changed his life it pales in comparison to what Dozier has gone through personally since.
On June 10, 2015, Dozier’s mother, Evelyn Willis, was killed in an automobile accident in Lexington, S.C., almost exactly one month before he married Haley Blankenship ’15 in Raleigh, N.C., where he now lives.
Willis was a single mother, and her shocking death left Dozier with custody of his younger sister, who was then 12. “It’s a hard, difficult time, but we’re all coming together through prayer,” Dozier told Metro.us, which wrote a story on his loss last summer.
Dozier and Jerome Felton ’08, a fullback with the Buffalo Bills, are the only two former Paladins currently on an NFL roster. The Jets open the season Sept. 11 at home against the Cincinnati Bengals.