KNOXVILLE - It took only a little more than one half of football for Tennessee to have its lack of depth at inside linebacker tested.
Yet when Herman Lathers left Friday night's season-opening win against North Carolina State early in the third quarter, unheralded junior Dontavis Sapp, a staple on multiple special-teams units, stepped right in and helped the Volunteers' defense.
"I felt good," Sapp said after the game. "I had practiced hard all week, and even in camp, getting a lot of reps and knowing what to do. You get kind of upset when you practice all week on defense and don't really get any reps, so tonight was a good night to come in and get to play."
Lathers, the fifth-year senior who missed all of last season with an ankle injury, left the game with what coach Derek Dooley afterward called a "dinged" shoulder. After suffering the injury away from the ball on the seventh play of the third quarter during the Wolfpack's opening second-half possession, Lathers never returned. He sat despondent on the bench with his right arm iced in a sling and left the Georgia Dome field still in the sling.
"I talked to him on the sideline," Sapp said. "I think he'll be OK. It was hard to tell, but you always want to be on the safe side."
Though there were no specific updates on Lather's injury, the damage doesn't appear to be serious. The Vols shouldn't need him this Saturday against Georgia State, a 33-6 loser to South Carolina State last Thursday. Tennessee has managed Lathers and his many nagging injuries throughout the offseason and preseason, and the hope is he'll be ready for Florida's visit in two weeks.
"It's a leadership role that he brings that he brings out there," Sapp said. "He's always intense. He always bring all he's got, and it's hard to ask for any more from him."
Sapp filled in admirably in emergency duty Friday night. The 6-foot-2, 224-pounder from Valdosta, Ga., came unblocked on a blitz off the edge and delivered a clean blindside blow to N.C. State quarterback Mike Glennon on a first-down play. On the first play of the Wolfpack's next possession, Sapp read a screen pass and tackled James Washington for a 4-yard loss.
He made four special-teams tackles as a reserve safety as a freshman and finished last season, his first at linebacker, with 20 tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery and one sack.
When Curt Maggitt was injured against South Carolina and Kentucky last fall, Sapp made 11 stops. Though he doesn't have the typical size of an inside linebacker, Sapp said he's comfortable helping the defensive communication if Lathers is out of the lineup.
"We all practice making the calls," he said. "Herm is a big part of our defense, but when one person goes down, it's the next man up. We've all got to be able to do certain stuff."
Big CP talk
Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson isn't a big talker, but his teammates certainly have had no problem talking about him, especially after the junior college transfer delivered an eight-touch, 165-yard, two-touchdown debut.
"It wasn't so much shocking as much him coming out and showing he is what the hype is about," safety Byron Moore said. "Seeing that gave us all a lot of confidence in him. He had never played at this level, so seeing him come out there, play with confidence and make the plays that he did, it was real exciting for us.
"Looking forward to watching him make more."
Added receiver Justin Hunter: "That's what he [does] in practice. I wasn't surprised at all."
N.C. State didn't have the luxury that the rest of Tennessee's opponents will have. After his dazzling debut, Patterson won't sneak up on any defensive coordinators. That doesn't mean he'll be any easier to stop, even with Da'Rick Rogers playing at Tennessee Tech.
"We didn't know a lot," Wolfpack coach Tom O'Brien said. "Holy cow, if they would have had [Rogers] with all those guys out there, they would have some great skill. He obviously is a heck of a player, and he complements [Hunter].
"When you've got 6-foot-4 either side and running like they do, that puts some stress on the defense."
Patterson figures to improve as the season progresses and he better learns Tennessee's offense and improves his rapport with quarterback Tyler Bray.
"When I saw his highlight film, I knew he was going to be a special player," Bray said. "He's a juco kid, so he's been playing a while. It's not like he's straight from high school.
"He learned our system, got it down, and now he's doing what he's doing."
Tennessee figures to emphasize a more consistent push from its offensive line, less outside running from its tailbacks and more discipline in its pass-rush lanes this week in practice. Despite a disruptive night, the Vols' defense has plenty of mistakes to correct. After some communication issues led to some early blown coverages and big plays for N.C. State, repairing those mistakes will be a focus, as they're likely to be all season.
"It's a very in-depth defense, so I expect a couple of breakdowns, but we're going to get it fixed," safety Brian Randolph said. "We just all need to get the call on the field. That was the biggest problem. We've got to learn the hand signals better."