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Tennessee Football: The main goal of the Vols’ opener with Virginia is survival

Even some of the most ardent college football fans might not know much about Virginia. Fortunately, Tennessee center Cooper Mays is well versed in the Cavs.

Mays, who underwent an undisclosed procedure just over two weeks ago, isn’t expected to play on Saturday in Nashville when the Vols open their season. However, he’s been in on all the meetings put in place to prep UT’s players, so he knows what kind of opponent the Vols will face Saturday in Nashville.

“I see a defense that plays very hard,” Mays said during The Vol Report. “I think that’s the step one. You see a lot of teams in college football, even some of the more acclaimed teams, they’ll get tired and they won’t play hard anymore. You can see the drop off. I think these guys sustain through the whistle and I think they sustain all game. So that’s the first thing that jumps out on tape about them. 

“The next thing is they’ve got guys that have played a lot of ball and that you can tell they they know football and they know how to play within their technique and within their leverages. That’s always going to present a challenge in and of itself. But yeah, I see a good defense.”

Virginia will be the first team this season that takes the Vols very, very seriously this year after what Tennessee did in 2022, which consisted of an 11-2 record that vaulted the Vols into the conversation as one of the top teams in the nation.

“Everybody talks about it’s hard getting up the mountain,” Mays said. “But the hardest part is really staying on top.”

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Mays said there were times that the Vols didn’t play with their best intensity last season. However, Tennessee still surprised teams during those times because the Vols were simply very good, especially on offense. Mays said Tennessee will have to be at the top of its game throughout this season to make sure there aren’t any slip ups that could undermine the Vols’ goals for 2023.

“Nowadays we’re going to get everybody’s best shot,” Mays said. “So we got to come out there and match that energy.”

Virginia lost some of its best players at linebacker and cornerback from last season. However, the Cavs’ defensive line returns intact after a massive improvement in 2022 compared to 2021. Virginia is likely better with all the returning players up front. However, the Cavs are also a bit easier to figure out since there’s so much video to scout from last season that features the same players the Vols will see on Saturday.

“I think it’s great when you can get a deep dive into someone and kind of find out their tendencies and see how they win and see how they lose find their strengths and weaknesses,” Mays said. 

Still, that doesn’t mean the Vols know exactly what the Cavs will do. Teams have often made major adjustments against Tennessee’s offense because it is so unique. Virginia has had the entire offseason to implement its adjustments to try and stop the Vols.

“A lot of people play different defenses, a lot of people play different personnels,” Mays said of opponents he’s faced compared to how they’ve played previously. “We’re always on our feet about stuff like that because we know that no matter what the film says, somebody could come out and play us completely different than they played everybody else all season.”

Edge rushers Chico Bennett Jr., and Kam Butler could be tough to handle when they rush Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III.

“They come out on tape and you can see that they play hard,” Mays said. “They’re the kind of guys that you see…get a lot of their pressures off of ‘Maybe they get blocked, maybe they get bodied up and and they don’t have just a clean win.’ But there’s guys that will keep going, keep pressing the pocket. And instead of just shutting down the rush when they get latched onto, they’ll continue to press it, continue to go power. 

“That kind of closes up pockets really fast. So we’re going to have to do a good job about training to the end of the whistle and making sure we drop anchor and don’t let anybody get pressed on the pocket.”

It has been said that Virginia has a bend-but-don’t-break defense. Mays laughed that off.

Said Mays, “It seems to me like a very broad paintbrush term to me…I don’t even know what that means really. I do know what it means, I guess. So, theoretically, you could say our defense in the Orange Bowl had a bend-but-don’t-break (approach) because it seemed like they (Clemson) got to the red zone and they would just throttle out. You know what I’m saying? That’s bending, but not breaking. Then, they miss field goals and that that greatly changed the game.”

Making plays close to one’s own goal line is one thing. However, flippantly giving up yards in the middle of the field is never any team’s goal.

”I think everybody would want to be rigid, you know what I’m saying?” Mays said with a smile. “Don’t even bend. Nobody really thinks about that (purposefully giving up yards). Maybe they just end up playing like that, but I don’t think that’s their mentality.

Virginia is just part of the challenge on Saturday. Simply breathing is the first task at hand. The game will likely be held in hot, humid conditions and playing in a game is much more intense than practicing, as the Vols have done throughout August.

“That’s going to be the main focus in your mind, probably the whole game, is how are you going to survive?” Mays said. “…First game is always going to be rough for anybody…Everybody can practice hard and you can practice as much as you want and you can condition as much as you want, but nothing will ever replicate the intensity.” 

Mays won’t get to take part in that intensity, but he certainly knows what it’s like.

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