Larry Fedora knew only that Demar Dotson was a basketball player (and not a very good one at that) when the 6-foot-9, fifth-year senior literally ducked into the head coach's office at Southern Mississippi and announced he would like to play football a day before spring practice.
Fedora did not believe it was a charade. Dotson seemed sincere enough, so he went along with the quest.
"What position did you play in high school?' Fedora asked Dotson.
"I didn't play football in high school," Dotson said.
"Okay, well, junior high school. What position did you play then?" Fedora asked.
"I didn't play football in junior high school," Dotson explained.
"Okay, well, Pop Warner then. The last time you played, what position?' Fedora said pleading.
What Dotson volunteered next caught Fedora by surprise.
"I've never played football before," he said.
Fedora stared blankly at Dotson. Granted, the kid was a physical specimen, with long arms and a powerful build. But this was Division I college football, so how long could the Golden Eagles coach conceal a sneer?
"I don't remember exactly what I said, but when he said that, I was turning him off in my head," Fedora said. "I remember asking him about his family.
"What does your dad think of this? He said, 'My dad thinks I'm a dumb- - -.' I told him, 'You might ought to listen to him.' "
Fedora did some checking with Southern Miss basketball coach Larry Eustachy and discovered Dotson, who averaged about 3 points per game, was conscientious and a tireless worker. What sealed the deal was the team's strength coach confirmed Dotson could bench press 400 pounds.
Fedora, now head coach at North Carolina, would've liked to have had time to develop Dotson into an offensive lineman. But with only one season to contribute, Fedora put him at defensive tackle. To say nobody can remember a signature play in Dotson's football career at Southern Miss would be generous. But he worked extremely hard, soaked up information and was a good teammate.
Fast-forward just four years. Dotson is making his second consecutive start for the Bucs at right tackle today. A week ago, he did a decent job of keeping Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul off Josh Freeman's back. Today, he might face Cowboys sackmaster and six-time Pro Bowl selection Demarcus Ware.
Considering his background, Dotson has no more business starting at tackle in the NFL than Donald Penn has bringing the ball up the court for the Orlando Magic.
In fact, he had no foundation to play football at all. He didn't lay the groundwork for his career as a 9- or 10-year-old — getting into an athletic stance, learning about pad level, leverage and how the holes were numbered and gaps lettered.
"I sit there at night sometimes and wonder how did a guy like me stay in the NFL for four years?" Dotson, 26, said. "It's only God, because I've done nothing to get here. You've got to work hard to stay here, because God will give you a blessing. But if you don't work with it— it's like faith without work is dead."
According to Fedora, it was Dom Green, a scout with the Chiefs who worked for the Bucs from 2006-08, who had the foresight to convince then Tampa Bay college scouting director Dennis Hickey to sign Dotson as an undrafted free agent in 2009.
The Bucs converted him to an offensive lineman and he showed enough promise to earn a spot on the practice squad, getting promoted to the active roster for the final nine games.
In 2010, he tore a knee ligament and spent the year on injured reserve. Last season, Dotson improved enough to start two games in place of injured right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who had held the job since becoming a second-round pick in 2006.
"I never cut him as a young player because I saw potential and worried someone would claim him," general manager Mark Dominik said.
This year, with Penn missing the first several weeks of training camp with a calf strain, Dotson started at left tackle. He began the season on the sidelines until Trueblood went down with an ankle injury in Week 1 versus the Panthers.
Dotson played so well in his first NFL start last week against the Giants that coach Greg Schiano is sticking with him against the Cowboys even though Trueblood is healthy.
"Here and there, you hear those stories," Schiano said. "And the common denominator is they're all tremendous athletes. So what they've done is taken that athletic ability and put it into the game of football."
Now 315 pounds, Dotson signed a one-year, $1.26 million contract as a restricted free agent in the spring. In March, he is scheduled to become a free agent. Schiano says Dotson's among the first to work every day, watching film at 6 a.m., learning about a game he never played until four years ago.
"I have to keep doing what's got me here and maybe even a little more," said Dotson, a native of Alexandria, La. "This opportunity only picks up if I come in here and learn this offense, learn my opponents, because I'm behind the 8-ball every day.
"I don't have the privilege of playing seven years like those guys have, or having played since high school. So any edge I can get, if I get here a little earlier, work with the coaches, I love that because if anybody needs it, I need it."