X-Man's big play

You meet someone at a party and strike up a conversation. When you try to move on, however, he/she follows you around like a stray puppy. Thus, what began as a pleasant encounter becomes an annoyance.

If you've endured this experience, you can empathize with Tennessee junior defensive end Xavier Mitchell. His problem isn't a persistent person that follows him around but a game-clinching play that won't go away.

With 1:35 left on Sept. 9 and Tennessee clinging to a 31-30 lead, Mitchell saved the day by storming into the Air Force backfield to throw tailback Chad Hall for a three-yard loss on a potential game-winning two-point conversion attempt.

Mitchell will never forget that play ... mostly because UT fans won't let him.

"Yeah. Every time I meet somebody new, that's one thing I do hear about," he said recently, flashing a pained grin. "I try to downplay it ... try to run away from it, really. It's in the past. It was a great play at the time but we're way past that now."

Mitchell's reluctance to relive that two-point conversion try – as dramatic as it was – is understandable. After all, he made other plays in other games.

One week after sealing Air Force's doom, he recorded a season-high eight stops (including a sack and a tackle for loss) in Game 3 vs. Florida. He registered four tackles (including a sack), a quarterback hurry and a pass breakup in Game 7 against Alabama. He recorded six stops (including a sack), a forced fumble, a pass breakup and four quarterback hurries in Game 9 vs. LSU.

Mitchell wound up leading the Vols in hurries (13), while ranking second in sacks (4) and fourth in tackles for loss (8). He made steady progress and was a much better player in November than he had been in September.

"I just continued working and getting smarter in the way I pass rush," he said. "And I learned things my opponent did while I was going up against him."

Although the "X-Man" had several excellent games, he also turned in several mediocre performances. He was wildly inconsistent. So were the rest of Tennessee's defensive linemen.

"It was up and down throughout the season," he said of the line's performance. "We had flashes of greatness and we had some flashes of just not being there. We've got to work on our consistency."

Although the defensive front battled an assortment of nagging injuries all season, Mitchell thought the inconsistency was more mental than physical.

"I think it was just a mindset of knowing what you've got to do each and every week," he said. "You get lackadaisical and think you're doing well. You've got to take the same mindset that you had when you did well in the beginning and keep it up."


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