TAMPA - Running around the training grounds at the University of Miami in the fall of 1991, a skinny redshirt freshman did just about everything. From catching passes, kicking punts, returning punts and lining up to block at tight end, Warren Sapp showed all the versatility and athleticism he possessed as an 18-year-old. Just for good measure, Sapp even did some showboating by doing flips on the field. About the only thing Sapp didn't do in those formative days of his college career was play on the defensive line. Recruited out of Apopka High School as a tight end, Sapp spent most of his first year at Miami on the offensive side of the ball during practice and on the scout team. Yet, throughout that first season, Sapp heard the call from the defense.
"He came in at 227 pounds and was returning punts, had racehorse legs and stuff like that, and we're trying to recruit him over,'' said former Miami defensive line coach Ed Orgeron, who is now at Southern California. "Every time we saw him coming around the corner we would be recruiting him to come to defense. It was really fun." All along, the Miami coaching staff thought Sapp was in line to carry on the tradition of the great defensive tackles in Coral Gables - Jerome Brown, Russell Maryland and Cortez Kennedy. "I remember after that first year I called him into the office in the winter before spring football (and) asking him if he wanted to make a lot of money," former Miami head coach Dennis Erickson said. "He said, 'Yeah.' So I said, 'We're going to move you to defensive tackle.' I had a really great feel about his body and the things he could do at that position." From the first time he stepped onto the field with the scout team, Sapp was a natural. "I always thought his skill set and his intensity level match what we wanted in a great defensive lineman," Orgeron said. "And, obviously, we had a lot of great defensive linemen to show him and be able to back that up. But it took a little (convincing). He really wanted to play tight end." Then, as Miami was preparing to play Nebraska for the national championship in the Orange Bowl at the end of Sapp's redshirt season, something clicked. "We moved him over for a bowl practice and he just caught on fire,'' Orgeron said. Once Sapp discovered the joy of the sack, there was no going back to offense. According to his autobiography, Sapp showed up the next season determined to make his mark on the defensive line, telling future WWE and movie star Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson he was there to take his job. Sapp did just that, even if an injury to Johnson initially opened the door. It was more than just athletic ability that helped Sapp excel, as evidenced in a letter written by former Miami defensive coordinator Greg McMackin to Sapp's mother, Annie Roberts. "Warren is without a doubt the best player I have ever coached. I've never been around someone who works as hard or cares that much,'' McMackin wrote. "Whenever I'm trying out something and want to see if it works, I run it by Warren first. He is such a smart player. If he likes it, it's going to work." Sapp's brash attitude and swagger made he and The U, as Miami was known, a perfect marriage. And, just like the football program, Sapp backed up that boisterous talk on the field. In his three seasons at Miami, Sapp became one of the biggest personalities on the college football scene and one of the best players in the country. "It was unfortunate we had to play against him for those years at the University of Miami," former Florida State head coach Bobby Bowden said. "He was a tight end and ended up a defensive tackle and he was amazing. We could never block him. You could not block the guy. "He just had supernatural speed. Some guys come along and play like that. He's one of those great ones." firstname.lastname@example.org (813) 259-7835 Twitter: @erlendssonTBO