TAMPA — In his five seasons at USF, Sabbath Joseph has played for three linebackers coaches and worked under three defensive coordinators and two head coaches. But for all the transitions he has made, the toughest might have come this fall, when he made the move from an every-game starter in 2009 to a backup in his senior season.
Redshirt freshman DeDe Lattimore has played well in taking over as the Bulls' starting weakside linebacker, but as Joseph returns home to his native Miami on Saturday, he has handled his new role with maturity and success, piling up more unassisted tackles (27) off the bench this season than he totaled last year while starting 12 games.
"I don't know that anybody has matured more as a teammate than Sabbath has," said Skip Holtz, who was unsure this summer how he might respond to not starting as a senior.
"I made the comment to (defensive coordinator) Mark Snyder: 'I'm really worried about Sabbath. If DeDe beats him out, you're going to have a senior without a role who's used to playing a strong role, who has been a vocal presence on this football team.' We talked again a week ago — the guy has been the ultimate team player. Here's a guy who had every reason to complain, moan, groan, senior year, and yet he's handled the situation as maturely as any football player I've been around."
Joseph, 5 feet 11 and 235 pounds, has thrived in Snyder's system; his three sacks in conference play match the most of any linebacker in the Big East, and he has as many tackles for loss (six) as in his first three seasons combined.
"When he's been called upon, he's played extremely well," Snyder said. "It sends a great message to the rest of the team that everybody has a role. He's been real productive. He brings a calm to our defense; I call him the crafty veteran. Because he's been around and played a lot, he understands."
Joseph, 22, has found ways to inspire his teammates since his first year playing in 2007, when USF dropped three games in a row after rising to No. 2 in the national polls. When coach Jim Leavitt spoke of the team needing to dig out of the hole it was in, Joseph showed up with a golden shovel, a fixture on USF's sidelines and a symbol of the Bulls' blue-collar work ethic for the next year.
"I love everything about South Florida," he said. "I bleed green and gold. I'm a pride guy. I just love this sport so much, it means so much to me. Time winding down now, it's scary, but it's fun at the same time."
Joseph was close to Leavitt, and Leavitt's firing wasn't easy for him, but he has embraced Holtz and his new staff and the direction the Bulls are headed.
"I'm sorry about the way things happened for Coach Leavitt, but everything's been wonderful," he said. "Coach Holtz is a great guy, and everything's running good. You have to keep moving."
Joseph wasn't always on the right path at USF and said he found a new maturity after his third year on campus, when two close friends and teammates, linebacker Alonzo McQueen and cornerback Dylan Douglas, transferred out after not making it with the Bulls.
"I knew if I wanted to last and be like some of the guys that made it through this program, I had to change my ways," Joseph said.
Joseph's maturation on the field has run parallel to big changes in his life away from football. Last month, just days before USF's game at Cincinnati, his daughter, Kalani, was born; before the season he got engaged to marry his girlfriend, Jasmine Davis.
Going home to Miami is special for Joseph, who played at Miami Central. The first time USF played at Miami, he was a high school senior, then leaning toward the Hurricanes and not the Bulls. He chose USF, won over by friends from South Florida on the Bulls roster who recommended the family atmosphere of the program. He had a career-best nine tackles in last year's loss to Miami in Tampa and said the next two games, including USF's home finale against Connecticut, will be an emotional finish for him.
"It's a great feeling to get two home games left — this is like a homecoming for me," he said.
Holtz said the attitude with which Joseph has approached his role off the bench has served as a model for other players, even starters.
"A lot of people have been able to look at him and say, 'If he has that kind of buy-in factor and he's not starting, how can I not buy in?' " Holtz said. "From an attitude and morale standpoint, he's become the glue. He epitomizes to me what this football program is all about, and has been one of the biggest leaders on this team. He's been a huge positive influence on this team as a backup."
Joseph, who will graduate in December with a degree in criminology, said he'd like to stay in football, one way or another.
"It's been a long ride for me," Joseph said. "I'd love to play at the next level, but I'll leave it in God's hands. I'll continue to trust in my teammates and coaches and give it my all. If it doesn't work out, I'd love to coach one day."