Tennessee Football head coach Josh Heupel is doing his best to keep his cards close to his vest. However, he’s in a tough position to bluff.
By all indications, center Cooper Mays will not be available since suffering an undisclosed injury just over two weeks ago. Heupel didn’t commit to Mays playing this week or not, but sources have told Off The Hook Sports that Mays could be out a “few weeks.” That means he’s not going to play against Virginia in Nashville this season nor Austin Peay next week.
Florida was thought to be the target game to get Mays back on the field. However, that is becoming less likely as time goes on. Mays hasn’t practice with the Vols in about three weeks.
“Cooper, we’ll find out here as the week goes on, his availability in this one,” Heupel said during his weekly Monday press conference. “We’ve had two-and-a-half, three weeks of guys having an opportunity to play on the interior (of the offensive line). If he’s not able to go, we feel really confident.”
And he won’t be.
Senior Ollie Lane is expected to fill in for Mays during his absence. However, those are big shoes to fill. Mays was a preseason All-SEC selection and considered one of UT’s best leaders. Lane’s move to center has prompted the Vols to insert transfer Andrej Karic into the lineup. Karic started three games as a tight end for Texas last season and played in 12. He also played in 11 games and started one as a freshman in 2021 at offensive tackle. Now, he’ll be expected to play guard for the Vols.
It’s a good thing that Tennessee Football can turn to Karic. Had he not transferred, Tennessee would be in an even bigger predicament with Mays’ injury. The Vols will also be helped by another transfer offensive lineman. Jon Campbell Jr., transferred to Tennessee from Miami where he started all 12 games for the Hurricanes last season. He essentially nailed down the job at left tackle as soon as he showed up on campus.
“Absolutely,” Heupel said when asked about how Campbell’s fast ascension to first team gave Tennessee Football clarity in building their offensive line. “The competition to earn that spot and he played a championship level. His maturity, the amount of football he’s played all certainly help us. And he’s had a great camp. We got great trust in him and to play at a really high level.”
There’s plenty of reason to be concerned about Tennessee’s offensive line given Mays’ absence. The Vols, however, benefitted from the timing of the injury. That gave them nearly three full weeks to get their Plan B in place.
“I do feel good about the development of our young guys,” Heupel said. Some of the guys that have had experience playing, rotating some at their position.”