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Tennessee Football: Losing Vols C Cooper Mays A Reminder That The Season Is Looming

Tennessee lost one of its most valuable players in preseason camp, as announced by Vols’ head coach Josh Heupel. Hopefully for Heupel and the team he oversees, center Cooper Mays won’t be gone for long.

Heupel said Mays will be back after undergoing a “minor procedure” and should only be out of action for a couple of weeks. Two weeks from Heupel’s announcement would mean Mays could return by Aug. 24, which is doable considering the Vols don’t play Virginia until Sept. 2.

Mays wasn’t at Tennessee’s scrimmage on Thursday as he recovered from the unspecified procedure. If Mays can come close to hitting that two-week return date, he can participate in game-week preparation for Virginia. However, let’s be clear, Mays doesn’t need practice just to be ready for the Cavaliers. He could be ready to play the moment he’s cleared by the Vols’ medical staff.

Few of Mays’ teammates know as much about football as him. He’s from a football family, has played several positions in college and handles Tennessee’s line calls as the no-argument-possible leader of UT’s offensive line.

Mays doesn’t need the preseason practice snaps as much as his teammates do, especially with a new-ish quarterback at the helm.

If Tennessee’s coaches had any quiet intention of playing superstar prospect Nico Iamaleava in meaningful games early in the season, those plans are probably dashed. The Vols have to focus on making sure that Joe Milton III is as comfortable as possible. That means he should get the vast majority of first-team practice snaps. 

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One could easily argue that Mays is the most important player on Tennessee’s 2023 team. He’s one of the Vols’ best players and the fall off behind him is considerably more steep than most other positions on the depth chart.

Heupel said the Vols rotated a “bunch of guys” in Mays’ absence. Ollie Lane, Parker Ball, Vysen Lang and Addison Nichols all got first-team snaps, per Heupel. The fact that so many got snaps with the first team is a bit troublesome. Ideally, the Vols would have a backup center they knew could handle the load until Mays is healthy, which Heupel said would be the case closer to the season-opening kickoff.

It’s important to take note of just who is predicting that Mays will be back before the Virginia game. Heupel doesn’t want to lose one of his best players this fall. Moreover, coaches have been known to be, uh, optimistic when they address injuries. Lane has been receiving most of the first-team snaps while Mays has been sidelined, so Lane seems like the logical choice if Mays isn’t ready at any point this season. However, the Vols would certainly love for another, more talented, player to take a major step in preseason camp. Nichols is the most likely to do so.

Lane received plenty of praise from Heupel, who said the senior is intelligent, experienced and been “really good” in communication, mechanics and playing with tempo. No offense to Heupel, but that’s not the most glowing recommendation. It doesn’t quite sound like “dominant” or a “real force” when describing the lineman who has played 590 snaps in his career. By comparison, Mays played 894 snaps last season. 

Mays, who will be a senior this season, was no guarantee to head up the Vols’ offensive line in 2023. He would have been selected in the NFL Draft, so going pro was at least a consideration. However, it was clearly in Mays’ best interest to return to college and improve his stock. It was also in Tennessee’s best interest.

Disclaimer alert, Mays is a part of The Vol Report with Cooper Mays as a presentation of Off The Hook Sports – so he’s part of what we do here. That being said, Mays is clearly one of the Vols’ best leaders, can play mean, is very competitive and takes great pride in playing for the Vols, as his father and older brother did. Mays is also an underrated overall athlete, who can lean on bigger defensive tackles and handle quicker linemen when he needs to. Mays did the latter against Pittsburgh and handled the big guys against, well, just about every SEC team he played.

If all goes as publicly expressed by Heupel, Mays will be back and ready for the Virginia game. If not, then the Vols should think long and hard about resting Mays for the UVA game and the following week against Austin Peay. The Vols will be heavily favored in both games and SEC rival Florida is looming on the schedule in the Vols’ third game.

The Vols will almost assuredly be 2-0 in their first two games. Aside from winning those first two games, there should be two goals: 1. Make sure that Milton is successful. 2. Make sure that Mays is healthy for that trip to Gainesville, Fla., on Sept. 16. If the Vols can do both of those things, a “minor” injury in preseason camp will be long forgotten before October.

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