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Tennessee Football: Vols persevered – and excelled – without one of its best

Tennessee had every reason to be concerned about its offensive line against Virginia on Saturday. As it turned out, that was all for naught.

The Vols dominated the line when they were running the football, protected quarterback Joe Milton and, aside from a few mistakes, played an elite game without its most decorated offensive lineman, center Cooper Mays, who is out for an undetermined amount of time with an undisclosed injury.

“I thought for the moving parts that we had, the different guys that played at center, the communication, getting all five guys on the same page as far as where our targets were, that can be in the run game and in the pass protections, they did a really solid job,” Heupel said on Monday during his weekly press conference. “…We’re looking at eight guys that played a ton of snaps and then maybe 13 that played during the course of ball game. There’s a lot of things that they gotta clean up too, which is anticipated as you go from Week 1 to Week 2, but all in all a really solid performance by those guys.”

For the most part, senior Ollie Lane stepped in at center for Mays. Lane had been playing left guard so Andrej Kuric stepped in for Lane at that position. 

“Ollie? Smart, cares about this program, cares about his teammates,” Heupel said. “He’s a great teammate and this offseason continued to change his body. I thought he had his best offseason. That’s why I think he’s playing his best football right now since we’ve been here. He’s smart, moving from guard to center. It’s different, but he’s gotten consistent reps at the center position throughout our tenure here. He’s done a really nice job. 

The Vols also played Dayne Davis at center sporadically throughout the game even though the senior hadn’t played center until Mays was forced out of action about one month ago.

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“Dayne didn’t take reps there until Coop went down. We looked at things, felt like he had the opportunity. We didn’t know if he’d handle it well and how he’d respond in there. He’s really smart. He can communicate at a really high level. We knew that from his time at tackle. It’s been really pretty seamless for him in the middle of it. He’s done a great job. And is really natural.”

It remains to be seen when Mays will return. The Vols are hopeful that he could return for the Florida game next week. However, that’s still very much in doubt. The Vols play Austin Peay on Saturday.

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