In a perfect world, Tennessee would simply depend on its two proven starters at linebacker — Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. In that utopia, there would be no injuries, no need for them to take a breather, no reason to turn to a backup. In football, that world doesn’t exist.
In fact, the Vols have already had to turn to a backup after a week of spring practice as Reeves-Maybin has been ruled out of the remainder of spring practice with a shoulder injury. Enter Quart’e Sapp, the linebacker from Alpharetta, Ga. The sophomore played safety for much of his freshman season before a stress fracture limited him to just four games.
Sapp wasn’t destined to play safety. His frame was bound to outgrow the position. He’s currently 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds. He said Tennessee’s coaches would like him to weigh 225 to 230 pounds. However, Sapp’s time in the secondary wasn’t wasted. That experience has allowed him to learn defense from a different perspective than most prototypical linebackers.
“It really helps the game when you see if from the back end,” Sapp said. “You know the run fits. You know it from both angles.”
Sapp isn’t the first to make the safety-to-linebacker transition: Reeves-Maybin did the same. So did fellow backup linebacker Cortez McDowell. Tennessee’s defense is based on speed and, as a former safety, Sapp fits that mold. Now, it’s just a matter of getting repetitions in practice to allow him to play more freely.
“The better I can dissect the plays,” Sapp said, “the faster I can know the play.”
Admittedly, Sapp didn’t play fast when he first arrived at Tennessee. Thinking slowed him down.
“Last year, I was kind of hesitant,” he said. “I didn’t know as much what I was doing. That kind of slowed me down. The biggest thing for me was my speed, so if I can’t play as fast, that’s going to hurt me.”
Speed will work well in Bob Shoop’s defense. Aggressiveness is the key for the Vols’ first-year defensive coordinator.
“We’re predominantly looking to get more after the quarterback,” Sapp said.
For Sapp, knowledge is crucial. He wants to know Tennessee’s defense like Reeves-Maybin and linebacker Elliott Berry, two Vols who have mastered Tennessee’s defensive approach.
“For the most part, I’m comfortable but I want to be better,” Sapp said. “I want to be able to be like one of those guys, like Elliott or Maybin. They know everything. They know the safety role. They know the corner role. I want somebody to depend on me as much as they do on them.”