Clemson University

Tigers count on Sapp to have big year

CLEMSON -- Matching a Willam Perry football achievement elevates a player into tall cotton at Clemson, and potential dissolves into great expectations.

Ricky Sapp knows.

His coaches know, too, and to hear them bark at the sophomore defensive end with increasing demands requires translation.

Sapp understands.

"(The criticism) is part of football," he said after a recent practice. "They know my ability, and they're pushing me and pushing me to make the most of my athletic ability."

Message sent, message received, and Sapp reacts by setting some lofty goals.

Indeed, how Sapp responds to the challenge of replacing All-American Gaines Adams probably will dictate the face of the Tigers' 2007 defense. Will the unit be merely good or is outstanding in the future?

For the outstanding tag to become reality, Sapp must bring pressure from the bandit end, a playmaking position in the Clemson scheme.

To help reach expectations, Sapp has added 30 pounds to his 6-foot-4 frame, and at 245, he wears the added weight well.

Now, his coaches say, show us.

Getting the message

"Competition provides motivation" became a continual theme around the Tigers during preseason camp, and coaches spared no effort to spur Sapp.

He earned the Tigers' defensive rookie of the year award in for 2006 -- a season in which he tied the Refrigerator's school record for sacks by a freshman with four -- and led the team in sacks and tackles for loss in spring scrimmages.

Yet, he is listed only "co-first team" on the brochure's depth chart.

In one breath, coach Tommy Bowden sings Sapp's praises. In the next, he reels off the names of three players who challenge him for playing time.

"He brings what Gaines did, and he's the only one we have close to that," Bowden said, remembering Adams' 12 1/2 sacks last season.

Then, the coach added, "He and Kevin Alexander are kind of bracketed, and we have Kwan Williams and Kourtnei Brown."

Sapp gets the message all right, but the challenge of replacing Adams, the fourth player selected in the NFL Draft, is all the motivation he needs.

"I have a lot to live up to, and I know I have to work hard," he said. "(Bandit end) is definitely a playmaking position, and that's what I have to do.

"I want to have double figures in sacks, and I know that's a high goal. But I expect a lot from myself, and I want to do everything I can to contribute to our team."

Now, he must deliver.

Adapting to the system

Despite playing behind Adams for an average of 17 snaps per game, Sapp nevertheless made his presence felt in 2006. His sack total ranked second on the team and one of them preserved a Clemson victory.

With the Tigers clinging to a 20-14 lead, Sapp sacked N.C. State quarterback Daniel Evans to spoil the Wolfpack's final offensive play.

He routinely made such plays in a domineering career at Bamberg-Ehrhardt High. High-profile coaches from around the country flocked to make recruiting pitches to the player who earned first-team All-America honors on the USA Today squad.

At Clemson, Sapp had to adjust from roaming the field to playing his responsibilities in defensive coordinator Vic Koenning's alignment.

"(Clemson's defense) is a matter of playing the right scheme with the right techniques," Sapp said. "Playing under control is something I had to learn."

The demands of the position lead to rewards. Demarcus Ware, a first-round draft pick, and Osi Umenyiora, second in the NFL in sacks in 2005, played bandit end under Koenning at Troy. Add Adams to that list, and the possibilities are enormous.

"Ricky had been out for about eight days with a high ankle sprain, and we missed him," Bowden said. "He brings so much (pressure) off the edge. He has a little bit of Gaines Adams in as far as ability is concerned."

And ... ?

The coach starts naming others at the position.

Sapp hears and plans for his performance to provide his positive answer.