By Bret Strelow
The Fayetteville Observer
BUIES CREEK - Watching Campbell University basketball games as a high school senior reaffirmed Preston Dodson's belief that he could compete at the Division I level.
Seated next to Mark Harnly, his prep coach, Dodson studied Campbell's forwards closely. During one of their three-hour trips home to Camden County, after the Camels had given up an inordinate number of offensive rebounds, Harnly asked the 6-foot-5 Dodson a question.
"What do you think?"
Dodson answered without hesitation.
"I can play there."
Passing on offers from lower-tier programs, Dodson walked on at Campbell and received a scholarship the next season. A productive four-year career ended in March, and he quickly turned his attention to a new venture.
Dodson hadn't suited up in pads and a helmet since high school, but he attended many of the Camels' games, specifically watching how the receivers and tight ends operated.
Campbell's season is only two games old, but one thing is clear.
He can play there.
Heading into Saturday's home game against Jacksonville, Dodson leads the Camels with 88 yards on eight receptions. He capped their season-opening possession with a touchdown and caught six more passes that night in front of nearly 20,000 fans at Old Dominion.
"The coaches counting on me, my teammates counting on me to make a play, it's what I've dreamed of," Dodson said. "I love making big plays, love being in that situation."
The recession is to credit - or blame - for Dodson's emergence.
A business administration major, he wasn't able to find a job in the months leading up to his May graduation, so he decided to start pursuing his MBA. Returning to school meant that Dodson, much like former Duke basketball player Greg Paulus, could take advantage of an NCAA rule that gives him one season of football eligibility.
Head coach Dale Steele first learned of that possibility from his wife, Pam, who knows Dodson from her job as an administrative assistant in Campbell's Lundy-Fetterman School of Business. Steele later received a call from basketball coach Robbie Laing, who was also aware of Dodson's interest.
Shortly after Campbell's basketball season ended, Dodson stopped by Steele's office and inquired about joining the football team. Steele told him to first observe some practices, but only after taking two weeks off to let a hoops injury heal.
Dodson returned as soon as the two weeks were up. Two days later, Steele spotted him in an offensive line meeting.
"I thought, 'Do I want to take a break and relax?' " Dodson said, "but I'd be too bored. I don't know how regular college students do it. They just go to class and then hang out and do work. I like to be active and be involved in the team atmosphere."
Dodson reached a deal with Steele. They'd meet again at the end of spring practice, and Steele would offer an honest appraisal of Dodson's ability. If Dodson could contribute, he'd remain with the team.
It wasn't a far-fetched notion.
Dodson excelled at football, basketball and baseball (all-state pitcher) in high school, even receiving an invitation to walk on to East Carolina's football team.
Five years ago, as a Camden County senior, he caught 53 passes for 940 yards. Harnly, his position coach, and head coach Scott Jones still marvel at the game-winning reception Dodson made on a fade route as a sophomore to beat North Edgecombe in a playoff game.
"I've never seen a kid with hands like his," Harnly said. "He'd go and get balls he wasn't supposed to get."
Steele initially worked Dodson, who weighs 225 pounds, about 20 more than he did in high school, at tight end. After a few practices, the coaches moved him to receiver to take better advantage of his knack for finding open spaces. Dodson caught several passes in Campbell's spring game.
When Dodson sat down with Steele for their definitive discussion, there wasn't much suspense.
"Robbie had told me some things about him," Steele said. "I thought, 'He can't be that good; he can't be the perfect kid.' But he is the perfect kid."
Dodson has displayed the same toughness he showed last basketball season, when he suffered a fractured eye socket but missed only four games. Steele worried more about how an outsider like Dodson would fit in with a new set of teammates, and that transition has been smooth.
Dodson takes one business class a week, a corporate finance course that runs from 6-10 p.m. on Mondays, and works part-time in the school's accounting office. He might have a difficult decision to make if the football experiment continues toward a successful conclusion.
Steele believes Dodson, with his size and skill, could end up in an NFL training camp if he catches close to 50 passes this season.
"I'd wager to say he's not outrunning corners, but I guarantee he's getting position on them," Jones said. "What's the average corner? Six-foot, 175 pounds?
"Good luck with 6-5, 230."