In this Aug. 3 photo, University of Tennessee senior linebacker Dontavis Sapp is pictured in training camp in Knoxville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Amy Smotherman Burgess, Knoxville News Sentinel)
KNOXVILLE — Dontavis Sapp used to wonder if he'd ever get the opportunity to earn a meaningful role on Tennessee's defense.
Sapp, a senior linebacker, was primarily a special-teams performer his first three years at Tennessee under former coach Derek Dooley. He briefly considered quitting or transferring. Sapp remembers thinking "is football really for me."
Those doubts have vanished.
Sapp has emerged as one of the prize pupils of new coach Butch Jones, who never hesitates to praise the senior's work ethic and leadership skills. After being named the team's most improved defensive player in spring practice, Sapp heads into his final college season atop the depth chart at weak-side linebacker.
The turning point in Sapp's career came when Jones arrived in December and offered a message to each of the players. Perhaps no Tennessee player has benefited more from the coaching change.
"What they'd done in the past did not have any merit at all," Jones said. "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 and on the football field. He right away started creating his own identity."
At the time, Sapp didn't know much about Jones other than that he had coached a Cincinnati team that lost at Tennessee in 2011. But that introductory speech was just what Sapp needed to hear.
And the more he got to know his new coach, the more Sapp liked him.
"When Coach Jones came in, it was just whole different demeanor about him," Sapp said. "If you see him, he's always walking with a bounce. He always looks like he's amped up and ready to do something."
Jones quickly noticed that Sapp also always seemed ready for anything.
"He has a different energy about himself," Jones said. "He takes coaching. He's one of those individuals who takes pride in his consistency and his performance each and every day. He's extremely coachable. You have to just tell him one time and he gets it. He's one of our leaders. ... He's playing like a senior should. That's what we expect and demand from seniors in our football program."
Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen calls Sapp "a natural leader," but it's tough for a player to provide much leadership from the sidelines. And that's where Sapp has spent the majority of his career.
Sapp made just two starts in his first three years at Tennessee and spent most of last season backing up former teammate Herman Lathers. Sapp was frustrated by his lack of playing time on defense and thought about leaving the team, though he says it was "just a thought" and never got to the point where he discussed it with the former coaching staff.
"I sat down with some of the players, some of my teammates," Sapp said. "That's who I'm around all day, every day. These are pretty much my family members."
Sapp sought the advice of Lathers and fellow linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt among others. They advised him to stick around and said he wouldn't find a better situation elsewhere.
They believed Sapp could make a difference if he got an opportunity. Sapp's time finally came when Jones arrived on campus.
"He came in and made sure everybody had a clean slate, no matter who you were, no matter what you did last year," Sapp said.
Sapp's made the most of that chance ever since. He's rewarding the faith his teammates always had in him.
"He's out there making plays and balling," Johnson said. "(It) hasn't really surprised me. I already knew he was a baller. He got his chance and he made it happen."
After struggling to find playing time for much of his college career, Sapp conceivably could spend his senior season as one of the Volunteers' busiest players. Not only does Sapp have an expanded role on defense, the Vols want to continue using him as much as possible on special teams.
Sapp welcomes the additional responsibilities. Now that he finally has a shot at more playing time, Sapp wants to make sure he stays on the field as much as possible.
"If he wanted me to run back kicks and punts, I'd do it," Sapp said. "I'm just trying to get out here and play."