Tennessee center Cooper Mays has gone from player to coach, but not by choice.
After suffering an undisclosed injury in preseason camp, Mays has been sidelined for a “couple” of weeks, according to UT coach Josh Heupel. Per Heupel’s initial update on Mays, the senior could return to the field next week. However, that remains to be seen.
Unable to play football at the current moment, Mays has dedicated himself to “coaching from the bench” and helping the Vols get better as practice rolls on without him. Of course, Mays is spending the most time with his current replacements, led by senior Ollie Lane.
“He’s right up there with about any of us who are the guys that are pretty smart in the room,” Mays said on The Vol Report when asked about Lane’s knowledge of UT’s offensive system under coach Josh Heupel who was hired before the 2021 season. “He’s a guy that’s, I guess it’s year three. He’s been studying the stuff for three years. He knows his job at probably any interior position, kind of knows what he’s doing and knows all the calls and everything, can get them out with confidence, and that’s such a big part of playing center.
“If you can figure out how to make calls on the run and see the whole picture, it makes everything a lot easier, and that’s kind of the way you got to play center. I think he’s gotten a lot better at it. I think he knows what he needs to do, and I think he’s on the right track, for sure.”
Lane may have the best grasp of the Vols’ offense. However, most think redshirt freshman Addison Nichols, who moved from left guard to center when Mays went down, has the most potential.
“I like Addison a lot,” Mays said. “He sits right beside me in the meeting. I can drop in little nuggets of information whenever I can and help him. I think we’ve talked about it before. He’s huge – strong guy. You know what I’m saying? Came out of high school like that. So now it’s just really fine tuning his figuring out how to play in the confines of his rules and technique and everything, but all the physical ability in the world.”
In other words, Nichols isn’t as ready to play as the Vols would like for him to be. That’s why Lane, who isn’t as physically gifted, has received most of the first-team snaps. Lane’s move to center opened the door for Texas transfer Andrej Karic, who has been receiving the most work with the first team at left guard.”
“Really, really impressed with Andre,” Mays said. “I’ve been impressed…he’s one of those guys that kind of reminds me of me a little bit…He knows how to translate power with his hips. He’s a little bit of a smaller guy like me, not just Gargantuan in size, so he’s got to play with the right leverage and the right explosiveness, and ‘twitch’ is what they call it, being fast, athletic. I think he’s a guy that knows his role.
“I think he plays football the right way, plays hard and plays violent, and I can always work with a guy like that, man. I enjoy watching people that know how to play football violently. It’s not extremely common now as it was back in (day). He’s a guy that possesses that, and I really enjoy it.”
Senior Parker Ball and Vysen Lang are also options for the Vols at center. However, it seems as if they’re not quite ready to play at Mays’ level, which would explain why Lane and Nichols have gotten the first shot with the first team since Mays was sidelined last week.
“No matter who’s in there, it’s still Tennessee football and it’s still SEC football,” …It’s SEC football and if you don’t come with the right energy and the right juice, it ain’t going to work out well for you. And you got to be a guy that takes a lot of pride in that. I take a lot of pride in that. It’s how you got to play. It’s a standard that was set long ago and we’re just carrying it out.”
Mays was certainly carrying that out before his injury. He was named a preseason All-SEC player. His replacement, likely Lane, has a high standard to uphold.