Tennessee defensive end Xavier Mitchell has responded well since returning to contact Wednesday and could play in Saturday’s 7 p.m. home-opener against Southern Miss (TV: Pay-per-view).
Mitchell suffered a concussion after colliding with teammate Eric Berry late in the Vols’ 45-31 loss at No. 10 California last week.
The senior from Long Beach, Miss., is the Vols’ best pass rusher — but UT coach Phillip Fulmer said a pair of freshmen are coming closer to being able to contribute at defensive end.
True freshman defensive end Ben Martin (knee) will not play against Southern Miss, but is expected to return to practice on Monday in preparation for next week’s trip to defending SEC champion Florida.
Chris Walker, originally signed as a linebacker, has progressed well since moving to defensive end midway through fall camp.
"He could play linebacker, but we just have such a need for a young speed-rush defensive end and he kind of gives us that right now," Fulmer said. "I’m pretty encouraged about that."
Also up front, Dan Williams is still expected to start in place of senior J.T. Mapu at tackle opposite Demonte’ Bolden, however both will see significant playing time against the Golden Eagles.
"Both of them will play, and play a lot," Fulmer said. "(Mapu) knew he didn’t play particularly well in the first game. He wants to play better. I expect to see lots of good things from J.T."
Middle Man: Center Josh McNeil said communication along the offensive line will be of utmost importance against Southern Miss’ unorthodox defense, which often changes its look just prior to the snap.
"If you know your assignments well, no matter what happens you can always go full speed," McNeil said.
McNeil, a Collins, Miss., native, bears much of the responsibility for making sure the Vols make the correct adjustments up front.
"They run everything," he said of the Golden Eagles’ defense. "They run every defense you can think of."
Tee It Up: Backup punter Chad Cunningham will be the first to kick off Saturday, however Fulmer said that place kicker Daniel Lincoln will also kick off.
Lincoln handled the kickoff duties early against Cal before giving way to Cunningham late. Fulmer said both have shown improvement this week in practice.
Walk-on kicker Devin Mathis will dress out Saturday, giving the Vols four kickers on the sideline.
Kerin’s Cause: Second Harvest Food Bank, in cooperation with UT, will distribute "Power Towels" before Saturday’s game for a suggested $5 donation as part of the 16th annual Tim Kerin Memorial Drive.
Students, staff and volunteers will be collection donations at every gate outside Neyland Stadium. Second Harvest is asking fans to contribute $5 for the towel or give $1, enough to provide four meals.
The fundraiser is in memory of Tennessee’s late head athelitc trainer, Tim Kerin.
Injury Report: Punter Britton Colquitt (quadriceps) will be a game-time decision, Fulmer said, much like last week at California.
"Britton, I think, will be available," Fulmer said. "Just like last week, we really don’t know up until game time, but I believe he’ll be able to punt."
Dave Hooker contributed to this report.
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.