KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Devin Mathis had looked forward to being a normal student after not rejoining the Tennessee football team for his junior year. He wanted to focus on class and sneak in some afternoon naps.
After he watched his former teammate Daniel Lincoln miss three field goals last month against Alabama and struggle with a quadriceps injury, the former Volunteers walk-on saw an opportunity to help.
"I just walked back in there and said, 'Hey, I used to be here. Maybe I could come back out to practice, see if I've still got it or see if I can help the team,'" he said.
The Tennessee coaches saw an opportunity too and put Mathis to work last week in a 31-16 win over Vanderbilt. The junior connected on his only field goal attempt, a 25-yard shot, and kicked four extra points.
"It was completely surreal. I didn't expect it," he said. "I mean, three weeks earlier I didn't think I'd be on the team or even play football again. All of a sudden, I'm kicking against Vanderbilt."
Mathis was an all-state soccer player in high school at Baylor School in Chattanooga. He took a redshirt during the Vols' 2006 season and was a practice squad member in 2007, Lincoln's stellar freshman year.
When Lincoln struggled with accuracy last season, Mathis competed with him for playing time and nearly won the starting job but Lincoln hung on to it instead.
The logistics and Spanish major chose to study in Mexico during the spring semester, missing out on spring practice under new coach Lane Kiffin. He hadn't met Kiffin when he decided a few weeks ago to approach walk-on player coordinator Kyle Strongin about playing.
He didn't get the nod to start until a couple of hours before facing the Commodores.
"I didn't have time to think about it," Mathis said. "I had just enough time to send a few texts, tell my mom that I was going to get in and a couple of friends going to the game to make sure they were there."
Kiffin admits he was nervous about letting a guy who had never attempted a kick in college start. It was special teams coordinator Eddie Gran who convinced him to try Mathis out.
Kiffin hasn't said whether Mathis or Lincoln will kick when Tennessee (6-5, 3-4 Southeastern Conference) travel to Kentucky (7-4, 3-4) on Saturday.
"(Gran) kept coming to me and said, 'I'm telling you, this kid is kicking the ball well, and we should let him go,'" Kiffin said. "He practiced extremely well and regardless of the fact he hadn't played before, we gave him the opportunity."
GOOD HIT, COACH: Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin had a hard time containing his excitement about senior defensive tackle Wes Brown getting a pick-6 in his final home game as a Vol.
Brown intercepted MacKenzi Adams' pass and ran it 25 yards, carrying Vanderbilt's Warren Norman on his back for the last 5.
A television clip now circulating YouTube shows Kiffin bounding across the sideline and ramming into quarterback Jonathan Crompton, Brown's roommate, in celebration.
"He's on the injury report this week," Kiffin joked, admitting he got a little bit caught up in the emotion of senior day after a poor second half by the Vols.
"I happened to see Jonathan out of the corner of my eye, and Jonathan had just been talking the night before about how he and Wes had been living together for four years and what they'd been through and all the stories Jonathan had told Wes," he said. "I guess it all just kind of was a little bit overwhelming."
LINEBACKER SHUFFLE: Vols strongside linebacker Greg King chipped the bone in his elbow playing in place of LaMarcus Thompson against Vanderbilt.
The freshman will miss the Kentucky game, but Thompson insists he'll be back Saturday.
Thompson has practiced this week with a collar brace to protect his neck and shoulder area. The junior has suffered two shoulder stingers this season and had to be carted off the field at Mississippi after the second.
"It was just a couple of fluke hits," Thompson said. "I don't know it's really anything that can really damage my career, or anything like that. It was just, 'Heal it up and get back out there and ready to go.'"
ORANGE SLICES: Safety Eric Berry is a finalist for the Jim Thorpe Award for the nation's top defensive back and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, given to the nation's top overall defensive player. Berry was a semifinalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award, honoring the defensive player of the year, but was not named a semifinalist. ... Defensive tackle Wes Brown was named SEC defensive lineman of the week. He had three tackles, including a sack, an interception and a quarterback hurry in the Vols' 31-16 win against Vanderbilt. ... Tennessee has faced no opponent more than Kentucky and leads the all-time series 72-23-9. The Vols have won the past 24 meetings with the Commodores, which is the longest active streak among Football Bowl Subdivision teams who play each year.
SMOKEY SEZ: "We know about it. We know Tennessee history. We know the rivalry. We want to keep that going, obviously, but we just have to go take care of ourselves, take care of Tennessee and (the streak) will take care of itself," Tennessee defensive tackle Wes Brown said of the Vols' 24-game winning streak against Kentucky.