some text
University of Tennessee linebacker Greg King strips the ball from fellow linebacker Dontavis Sapp (41) during recent drills at Haslam Field. Sapp has been a fixture on special teams and this year is expected to move into a starting role on defense.

KNOXVILLE - Dontavis Sapp just laughed and shrugged his shoulders.

Asked about his value to Tennessee’s football team, the senior wasn’t sure what to say.

After three seasons as a special-teams ace and backup linebacker, Sapp simply is trying to seize an opportunity he’s waited for his entire career.

“I just go out there and try to perform, no matter what I’m doing,” he said after the Volunteers’ practice Monday afternoon. “If it’s punt, punt return — if he wants me to go back and catch punts, I’ll do it. I’m just trying to get out here and play.”

Sapp has played in all but two games in his Tennessee career, but the only chances he’s really gotten defensively have been when Curt Maggitt has been out with various injuries. This year he’s slated to replace the graduated Herman Lathers alongside the recovering Maggitt and A.J. Johnson in the Vols’ linebackers lineup. He’s also endeared himself to first-year coach Butch Jones, who said last week he loved Sapp.

“His value to this football team is great, and we’re going to need him,” Jones said Monday.

“Everyone was responsible for building their own identity,” he added, recalling the message from his first team meeting as the Vols’ coach. “What they had done in the past did not have any merit at all. Whether 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. He right away started creating his identity and earned our trust at a very relatively early stage of us being here.”

Sapp took advantage at the Vols’ first winter conditioning session, Jones said.

“He made sure everybody had a clean slate, no matter who you were or what you did last year,” Sapp said. “It just gave us the motivation to come out here and work and get to play.”

Sapp shows the humility one might expect from a longtime special-teamer. He receives phone calls and text messages about Jones and other coaches bragging on him and uses them as motivation. He believes he’s developed his leadership skills, and Jones said Sapp was one of the top vote-getters when the team elected its player staff.

“He has a different energy about himself,” Jones said. “He’s one of those individuals who takes pride in his consistency in his performance each and every day. He’s extremely coachable. You have to just tell him one time and he gets it.

“Our players respect him. He’s come a long way, and he’s playing the way a senior should. That’s what we expect and demand from seniors in our football program.”

Not surprisingly, Sapp said he’d never relinquish his role on the Vols’ special-teams units.

“That’s where I started,” he said with a smile, “and I’m going to finish on all the special teams, too.”

Now he’ll be able to help Tennessee regularly at linebacker with his athletic ability.

“He’s going to be real valuable to the defense,” Johnson said. “He’s a great player. He’s going to be one of the top linebackers coming out. He works hard every down, every snap, in the weight room — he’s ready to play all the time.

“Anybody who gets that chance, they’re going to have more urgency to get on the field and make more plays. He’s been on the field on special teams balling, so he’s getting his chance right here on defense to make plays. He’s going to do it.”

<em>Contact Patrick Brown at</em>