Dontavis Sapp on Butch Jones and the Vols' new coaching staff
Dontavis Sapp spent Tuesday evening playing the part of a senior leader. The Tennessee linebacker ran drills with the first team and shadowed linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen helping the young pups when his name wasn’t called.
Sapp looked confident, feeding on the environment of UT’s fifth preseason practice.
What he didn’t look like was a veteran who survived a wandering road of self-doubt to get to this point. But one day prior, following Monday’s practice, Sapp admitted asking himself at this time last year, “Is football really for me?”
The answer came with much debate, but was ultimately reached.
Sapp’s prior insecurity was a product of two years spent as a minor role player. Because of that, when he looked in 2012’s crystal ball, he saw the past. He was still behind an experienced linebacker (Herman Lathers). He was still docketed for special teams and sideline standing. He was still an extra piece, not an important part.
Quitting football became an option.
“It was just a thought,” he clarified.
Despite entering UT as an unheralded recruit out of Valdosta (Ga.) High School, Sapp didn’t redshirt his freshman year in 2010. He made five tackles on special teams and saw the field for little else.
Entering 2011, Sapp moved from defensive back to linebacker. He saw occasional playing time, but it was mostly filling in for injured players or spot duty. Again, Sapp wasn’t more than a special teams specialist.
Leaning on that experience, Sapp had long conversations with himself going into 2012. There was little indication his playing time would spike in what would ultimately be coach Derek Dooley’s final year with the Vols.
“Everybody has a role on this team,” Sapp said, remembering back. “I wanted mine to be bigger, as everyone should.”
A decision needed to be made. Finally, when it came time to buy-in or sell out, Sapp silenced that inner monologue by talking to teammates.
“I sat down to talk to them about it and they were just telling me I’m at Tennessee and there’s no other program better in the country than Tennessee,” Sapp said. “They were just like, ‘Where are you gonna go where you’re gonna have it like you do at Tennessee?’ ”
Sapp leaned heavily on fellow linebackers Lathers, Curt Maggitt and A.J. Johnson. They told him playing behind a quality linebacker like Lathers didn’t make him less of a player.
The sales pitch worked. Sapp stuck around and played as a junior, making two starts while appearing in 12 games, and posted 17 tackles.
“I still went out and performed on special teams like I was supposed to,” Sapp said. “Whenever my name got called on D, I was out there trying to bring the most production to the team.”
Then 2012 ended and out went Dooley and UT’s old regime.
That turning of the page turned out to be an opportunity Sapp has taken advantage of, making his journey all worthwhile.
When new UT coach Butch Jones took over in Dec. 2012, he
proclaimed a “clean slate” for all players in the program.
Sapp perked up, then attacked spring ball like a one-man pack of dogs.
“He right away started creating his identity,” Jones said. “He earned our trust at a very early stage of us being here.”
At spring’s conclusion, Sapp was named the defense’s most improved player.
“He came in with a different mentality,” Johnson said of his teammate’s spring revival. “He came in busting his tail, working even harder and pushing other guys around on the team.”
That’s why Sapp traversed Haslam Field on Tuesday night as the Vols’ projected started at weakside linebacker.
“Our players respect him,” Jones said. “He’s come a long way.”
Sounds like football is indeed for him.
Brendan F. Quinn covers Tennessee football and men’s basketball. Follow him at Twitter.com/BFQuinn