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Tennessee Football: Byron Young is an example of Vols’ team culture

Byron Young’s combine performance surprised many onlookers. However, there was no astonishment by one of his former teammates.

Tennessee center Cooper Mays said he wasn’t shocked at all that Young, who was an explosive edge rusher for the Vols last season, posted a 4.43-second time in the 40-yard dash.

“No,” Mays said flatly on The Vol Report when asked if he was caught off guard. “I’m sure a lot of people are going to be surprised by the numbers. I’m not because I’ve been around him so I know what he’s capable of. He’s definitely probably one of the best athletes I’ve ever been around, just pure athleticism and size and everything. He’s a pretty special human, for sure.”

Young’s 40-time was one of the fastest among defensive linemen at the NFL combine since 2003. He currently ranks fourth in the last 20 years. Young also posted an 11-foot broad jump and a 38-inch vertical leap.

Young exploded onto the college scene last year after a strong season in 2021. As has been well documented, Young went from being an employee at a Dollar General store to a junior college football player to Tennessee. Now, he’s a rising NFL prospect.

Young isn’t the only Vol that has made a major improvement on the field under Tennessee coach Josh Heupel in his two seasons as a Vol. The list of players that have gone from nobodies to dependable players or contributors to stars is longer than the 40 yards that Young dominated.

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Heupel is often credited for several things. His offense tops the list. Managing the transfer portal and NIL are close behind. However, Heupel doesn’t get as much credit for player improvement during his brief tenure despite the fact that it’s glaringly obvious. Player development doesn’t come from just coaching fundamentals. It is also a culture in which players want to get better because they enjoy the process of preparing, even in March.

“I was just in the facility and it’s five o’clock in the day and players are out there just hanging out getting extra work on the field,” Mays said. “This is an everyday thing where people just love being around the facility and getting extra work. You know that’s the difference from a good team and a bad team. If you’re a bad team, you’re probably looking at it as punishment or an obligation. 

“When you’re winning and you’re a successful team, you know you kind of yearn for more, for more progress and then you know it feels good when you put the work in.”

That yearning for success, especially from last season, is a motivator for the Vols that have been through a fiscal cycle of football. As for the newcomers, such as transfers or freshmen, they had better be ready.

“I’d say pretty quick,” Mays said when asked how soon new players notice the dedication to improvement. “Everybody wants to fit in another day (of work). We’re social creatures and people want to be like their friends.

“If you don’t go out there every day; if all your friends and all your teammates are out there working every day, then you know you should (be there as well). You should want to be out there with them.”

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