But he arrived at Boston College in 2003 with the hope of playing running back. In fact, he was so committed to that role that he passed on an opportunity to go to Syracuse University — his hometown school and where his mother was employed — because they wanted him to play linebacker instead. Ironically, he ended up in the same spot with the Eagles.
"I came in as a young guy kind of lost," Dunbar said during an exclusive interview with Scout.com. "Coach O'Brien and his staff put me in the right position and I just developed into a good player. I think it's mainly due to my dedication and my hard work, but also due to the coaching staff and what they try to do there as an organization. I definitely appreciate them.
"I've always been a fan of Syracuse football. But I think I made the right decision and I don't have any regrets. If I was there, I would have hopefully developed into a good player as well, but I'm happy with my decision and I think I did well for myself."
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker didn't just naturally develop his strong work ethic. He had a terrific role model who instilled it in him through her dedication and hard work. His mother, Michelle, has worked for Syracuse for over 20 years as a member of the janitorial staff in the football building.
"She's been there forever. She's like a part of the framework of those buildings," Dunbar explained. "It's hard to put her in words. She's an incredible woman and she always worked hard and was very determined to do what she needed to do for me.
Jo-Lonn Dunbar leaps to put pressure on Florida State QB Drew Weatherford.
AP Photo/Winslow Townson
"It's always been just her and I, so I think a lot of who I am comes from her. And a lot of it comes from how much I love to play football and how much I know I need to continue to get better to be a better football player."
In 49 regular-season games at Boston College, Dunbar made 210 tackles, 16 tackles for a loss, 2 interceptions, 2 1/2 sacks, defended five passes, forced a pair of fumbles, and returned three of four fumble recoveries for touchdowns. Two of those fumble recoveries that he converted into scores were at the expense of Maryland in 2006. Another noteworthy milestone in his career with the Eagles was when he earned MVP honors in the Meineke Bowl by making 14 tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery at Navy's 48-yard line with less than two minutes remaining, helping to set up a game-winning field goal.
The trophy that Dunbar earned now resides in a very special place.
"My mother has it in her basement where she has this whole little trophy thing, which is a little weird, but it's a mom thing I guess," he said with a laugh. "She has everything down there, jerseys, pictures and everything. It's like a mini-shrine. Every time I go down there I'm a little embarrassed.
"She's so inspirational and means so much to me. She's definitely my number one fan."
Entering his senior year as a team captain and with high hopes, the tenacious tackler didn't put up the same kind of numbers that he did during his junior campaign when he registered 92 tackles, but that was largely due to the fact that he sustained an ankle injury that should have sidelined him for weeks. But Dunbar took only one full week off and then contributed as best as he could during the final three regular season games.
"It was one of the hardest experiences I've had since I've been in college. You feel like a lot of it's on your shoulders when you're a senior captain and you're helping your defense and helping your team," he explained. "A lot of guys would have taken more time off, but I felt like I needed to be out there for my teammates and for the school.
"We were chasing something that we had never chased before, and we were close to it. It was all about winning the ACC Championship for us, and I knew if that was going to happen I needed to get back on the field as fast as possible. Sometimes you have to play hurt, it's the name of the game. That's football."
The buzz on Dunbar is that while he may not have the ideal size and the timed measurables of a prototypical NFL middle linebacker, his instincts, vision and timing more than compensate. The bottom line when you watch his game film is that Jo-Lonn Dunbar always seems to know where the ball carrier is and how to track him down efficiently. And he credits that, in part, to his cerebral approach to the game.
Dunbar recovers a fumble against Navy in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in 2006.
AP Photo/Chuck Burton
"It's all about eliminating plays," he explained. "When an offensive lines up they're only going to run a certain amount of plays out of a certain formation. And if you know what their team does well and doesn't do well, then you're eliminating plays.
"By the time the quarterback hikes the ball, I can usually have it narrowed down to two or three plays, which allows you to play faster. But that takes a lot of work — coming in early and leaving late, which I'm accustomed to doing.
Beyond being a smart, hard-working and instinctive player on the field, Dunbar will also bring good character to the locker room and the community of his NFL team.
"Nowadays you have to be more than just a football player," he said. "You have to be a good person, so in interviews I wanted teams to know more about me. My very first formal interview at the Combine was with the Carolina Panthers. It's nerve-wracking the moment you step in because it's a small room, they're all looking at you, and they're videotaping it.
"But after a while I just broke the ice a little bit with a couple laughs and by being myself, and I felt comfortable. It's definitely something when you're looking Coach Fox in the eyes and he's shaking your hand. I'm like a kid in candy store — my eyes are big, and I'm smiling and just looking forward to having that opportunity."
As for his 40-yard dash times and the various other drills that players are put through at the NFL Scouting Combine and during their pro days, Dunbar openly acknowledges that he's not going to be the linebacker who will top the charts in those individual events. But he doesn't believe it will hurt his draft stock.
" I'm a football player. I'm not one of those guys that look good in shorts and a tee shirt," he said. " I know what I can do when it comes to putting a helmet and shoulder pads on.
" I've never been one of the fastest kids or the strongest kids, but I've always been a good football player and that's something I have confidence in."
With just roughly a month before the polite and well-spoken player learns where he'll be suiting up for an NFL team, he already knows what he'll be adding to the club that wisely chooses to select him in this year's NFL Draft.
" I'm going to bring a hard-nosed, lunch-pail type of attitude, trying to make a roster and help a team win a Super Bowl," Dunbar said. " As I get older, I'm sure some of my natural leadership skills will show. But I'm just going to be one of those guys who doesn't say much, but is going to play hard and come to work every day to put himself and his teammates in that position."