KNOXVILLE — Darrin Kirkland Jr. got hurt. Next man up. Austin Smith got hurt. Next man up. Then Cortez McDowell got hurt.
Next man up, right?
It might have seemed like the University of Tennessee was running out of next men to be up at linebacker by the time McDowell injured his wrist in the third quarter of Tennessee's loss at Florida on Sept. 16, but a pretty good one has emerged.
Quart'e Sapp, who was third on the depth chart at outside linebacker to start the season, is quick to say he still has things to work on.
"I think I've played decent," Sapp said Tuesday.
But the redshirt sophomore from the Atlanta area is adjusting quickly as he thrives in a long-awaited opportunity for consistent playing time in the middle of Tennessee's defense after working through his own bout with injuries. Sapp missed nearly all of last season after suffering a knee injury against Ohio.
"It was very frustrating," Sapp said as he spoke with media for the first time this year. "But God has a plan for everybody, so I just stuck it through. I have amazing teammates, amazing coaching staff. So everyone was with me and stuck it out."
Sapp had a career-high 10 tackles in Tennessee's loss to Georgia this past Saturday, his second career start. That came after a nine-tackle performance against Massachusetts. He also made seven tackles against Florida in relief of McDowell, who could be out for the season.
"I meet with the coaches every day just trying to see what I can to do improve on, what I can do better, minimize my mistakes," Sapp said. "Obviously, UMass was my first game (starting), and I made some mistakes. So I'm just trying not to make the same mistakes twice."
Sapp is a former four-star prospect, according to 247Sports.com. He credited his family and his teammates with keeping him motivated as he worked through his own injuries to return to playing.
He said he is working to improve his communication while on the field alongside teammates he did not regularly practice with while injured or ranked lower on the depth chart.
"We've got to be comfortable with one another," he said.
Tennessee's next game isn't until Oct. 14, at home against South Carolina, and this week's practices have afforded the Vols (3-2, 0-2 Southeastern Conference) the opportunity to develop some of the cohesiveness that may have been missing earlier this season due to the string of injuries at linebacker.
And Sapp is happy to be the next man up for the opportunity.
"It feels good," he said. "It's a blessing. It was a journey to get here, so I thank God every day just to be able to take the field and have no injuries and have some protection over me. So I'm really glad to be out there."
Contact David Cobb at email@example.com.