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Tennessee Football: The Vols’ most important player isn’t who you might think

Despite Tennessee’s losses on offense, it looks as if the Vols have options to replace key members from last season. However, there’s one player that the Vols don’t even want to have to dream of playing without in 2023. That was evident in the Vols’ first scrimmage on Saturday.

Center Cooper Mays, who was held out of Saturday’s scrimmage, may well be the Vols’ most important player this season. Why? For a couple of reasons. First, the Vols have players tabbed to replace the departed at quarterback, receiver and tight end. Second, there’s little – if any – depth behind Mays. Lastly, he’s really good, garnering All-SEC honors last season.

“We don’t ever want to miss Cooper,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said after the Vols’ seventh practice of spring camp on Saturday. “That’s a guy in the middle that’s playing a lot of football, and he’s a great leader for us inside of our program.”

That leadership can’t be overstated. Mays learned leadership skills from his brother, Cade Mays, and NFL standout Trey Smith. He’s been very open about becoming the leader of the offensive line, which he has already done. Mays isn’t just the de facto leader because the Vols lost so much from last season. He was a leader last season just by helping the Vols get aligned before the snap. That’s no easy feat in the Vols uptempo style.

Mays, who was injured for much of 2021, doesn’t have much depth behind him. Redshirt freshman Addison Nichols saw very little playing time last season. Freshman Vysen Lang just arrived in Knoxville in December. 

“Addison and Vysen have to continue to grow and step up,” Heupel said. “There have been some really positive things from them in the first seven days and I’m excited to go back and watch the tape. We’re going to need those two guys to grow on the back half of spring ball.” 

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That means the two wouldn’t likely be ready to play if there was a game pressing down upon them. The two could be ready by the fall if something is wrong with Mays, but Tennessee doesn’t want to go down that path. The Vols would likely have to shuffle their offensive front if something happened to Mays this season. That’s also not ideal.

It may be more scintillating to talk about Tennessee’s quarterback position or who will be the next star receiver in the slot position. However, the Vols seem to have solid options in both of those areas. The same can’t be said for center.

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