Aug. 6, 2013
By Brian Rice KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.-- When Butch Jones took over as Tennessee's head coach in December, the players on the Volunteer roster each found themselves with a clean slate. Few players have taken that new beginning and found a way to make a name for himself as much as Dontavis Sapp has.
That name - it's pronounced "don-Tay-viss," by the way - is ready to contribute more than the 42 career tackles over his first three seasons that came primarily on special teams units. Sapp finds himself battling for a starting spot at linebacker heading into his senior season.
"Coach Jones, I love him," Sapp said of the relationship with the head coach that has helped propel him into his increased role in Tennessee's plans on defense. "He came in and made sure everyone knew that they had a clean slate, no matter who you were, no matter what you had done last year. That gave us the motivation to come out here and work."
"All I know is, I told every player when I walked in here and we had our first team meeting in December, everyone was responsible for building their own identity," Jones said.
"What they had done in the past did not have any merit at all, if they were a starter, or a backup, it didn't matter. They were responsible for creating their own identity by the way they performed in the classroom, in the community, on the football field. And he right away started creating his identity. He earned our trust at a very early stage of us being here."
That identity led the coaching staff to name Sapp as the recipient of the Andy Spiva award for Most Improved Defensive player during the spring season.
"He finished everything," Jones said of Sapp's work in the spring. "He has a different energy about himself, and he takes coaching. He's one of those individuals that takes pride in his consistency and his performance each and every day.
"He's extremely coachable. You only have to tell him one time and he gets it. He's one of our leaders. I believe he was second or third most votes in our players' staff, so our players respect him. So he's come a long way."
Tennessee's leading returning tackler, fellow linebacker A.J. Johnson has taken notice of Sapp's change in attitude and performance.
"He's been a great player to play with," Johnson said. "He came in with a different mentality, he came in busting his tail, working even harder and pushing other guys around on the team."
Things weren't always so easy for Sapp at UT. After his sophomore season in 2011, Sapp found himself down on the depth chart and wondering if he would ever see the field in a meaningful way. He even considered asking for a transfer.
"It was frustrating, but it was just a thought," Sapp said of transferring. "It didn't get to the point where I had to go and talk to coach. I sat down with some of the players and some of my teammates. That's who I am around all day every day. These are my family members. I am around them more than I am my brother and my dad. I sat and talked to them about it.
"I am at Tennessee, there is no other program better in the country than Tennessee. Where are you going to go and have it like you have it at Tennessee? I thought about it and we are just doing it for each other. It is about us on this team. Without the players there wouldn't be a Tennessee. I decided to get back to work."
Sapp found a way to make his mark as a special teams player, seeing action in all 12 games in 2012. He embraced the role, then used his success there to springboard himself into the linebacker battle in the spring under Jones and defensive coordinator John Jancek.
"Everybody has a role on this team," Sapp said about his motivation last season. "I wanted mine to be bigger, as you should. I still went out and performed on special teams like I was supposed to and when my name got called on D, I was out there trying to bring the most production to the team."
Sapp has worked at multiple linebacker positions in fall camp, ready to find where he can best contribute to Team 117. He said where he is on the field doesn't matter, he just wants to play.
"I just want to get out there and compete every play," Sapp said. "Any time I get a chance to get on the field, no matter what position, I'm glad to get out there, happy I got my chance."