Optimism, excitement and aspirations of new beginnings were stirring amongst Tennessee players and coaches at the football team's preseason press conference on Wednesday, but a pair of UT seniors preferred the term bittersweet to better describe the upcoming season.
Defensive end Corey Miller and linebacker Dontavis Sapp have faced a lion's share of challenges since entering the football program in 2010, but that has not stopped the pair in their determination to make the most of their final opportunity to don the orange and white.
After scrapping for playing time and participating in mop-up duty, mostly on special teams, since entering the program, both Sapp and Miller have been called upon during the offseason to embrace leadership roles on a defense that ranked in the statistical cellar of the entire NCAA.
That challenge was quickly accepted by both.
"The player staff meets a lot with the seniors and they tell us that we've got one last chance to right the wrongs that have gone on here for the past three years," Miller said. "Either you're going to buy in and get it done or just gonna let it slip."
A standout recruit from Byrnes High School in Duncan, S.C., Miller was a part of "Hostess Gate" that struck Tennessee under then-head coach Lane Kiffin in 2009.
Allegations and a suspicious photo of Miller and his teammate and fellow UT recruit, Brandon Willis, surfaced and linked the possibility of Kiffin utilizing co-ed females to entice recruits to attend UT.
After the rocky beginnings, Miller's UT career never seemed to possess an identity of any sort on the field, despite his charismatic personality on social media platforms off of it. He registered 46 total tackles and three sacks while clawing for playing time in a statistically stagnant defensive end rotation over his three seasons.
But, even after suffering through one of the worst stretches of Tennessee football in over 100 years, Miller said he is embracing his final opportunity.
"Well, the main thing with me, and I told coach Jones this, (was) when we had a couple recruits come into the stadium, I looked around and I saw the videos playing, (and) I'm not gonna lie, I teared up, cause it's seven games left and this is your last go-around," Miller said, "We've been through a lot of trials and tribulations as a team and I feel like with a good season this year it'll really set us off well."
Tagged as an up-and-coming senior contributor this offseason along with Miller has been Sapp, according to head coach Butch Jones.
Sapp began his UT career as a safety after being recruited by former head coach Derek Dooley.
The one-time Louisiana Tech commitment has only 42 total tackles during his UT career, but after putting on 20 pounds and making a position swap to linebacker, Sapp steadily saw his playing time increase last season and into the spring.
"It was kind of tough waiting on my turn to play, cause you know, I feel like I should've played since I've been here, everybody should," Sapp said. "So it's been tough, there've been times where I thought that I don't really want to play (at UT), but I wake up and want to grind with each one of my teammates, and in the spring all the chips fell for me in the right spot."
Jones seemingly could not hide a smile when answering questions about the Valdosta, Ga. native on Wednesday.
"He's [Sapp] done anything and everything that we have asked of him and it started from day one," Jones said. "I thought in the spring, he was one of our most consistent players. ... He's playing right now and he's leading the way a senior should."
Sapp was listed as the starter at weakside linebacker in the fall's preseason depth chart while Miller found himself as the second string behind starter and fellow senior, Marlon Walls.
"I think the reasonable expectations are just to win, just to win, period," Miller said. "I feel like we owe it to the state of Tennessee and we owe it to ourselves just to win."