Cooper Mays’ return to the offensive line at center was impossible to miss last Saturday as Tennessee Football beat the South Carolina Gamecocks 41-20. The Vols were able to dominate on the ground with 40 carries for 238 yards.
Joe Milton III, already not known for making the quickest decisions, was playing with a leg brace, limiting his mobility. Still, thanks in large part to Mays in the lineup, he was only sacked one time on the night.
“I felt like we had a really good night, you know, all around,” Mays said of the protection. “The backs did a really good job coming up and stamping blitzers, I think our protections picked up really well, I think we did a nice job. There were a couple of plays that we want to get back and that we’ll have to critique and, you know, get right, but I think the whole night, I think a lot of stuff went really well.”
Of course, it wasn’t a perfect night by any meas. Milton had two interceptions, both of which were his fault. He didn’t read a safety on one play, and he underthrew Jacob Warren on another play.
Mays added the Vols need to do a better job of finishing in the red zone. Twice they had to settle for field goals after getting inside the South Carolina 15-yard line, and one would’ve put them up by two scores in the first half had they reached the end zone.
“When you get a defense on the ropes like that, you’ve got to go ahead and stomp on their throat,” he said. “You’ve got to go ahead and take the life out of them.”
Still, even with his picks, it’s worth noting Milton’s leg injury took the running element away from his game, and that didn’t stop him from completing 21-of-32 passes for 239 yards. He largely looked comfortable in the pocket.
With the off week, Mays can get back into peak physical condition, and Tennessee Football can return other key players to the lineup, most notably Dont’e Thornton but also Andrej Karic and Jeremiah Crawford. Simply put, they can get a lot better.
“I don’t think we’ve really scratched the surface of how good we can be, so I think there’s a lot of room for us to improve, whereas I think probably at this point of last year, I’d say probably our last year’s offense was probably more on schedule just because we had already played together for two years,” Mays said. “We’ve got a lot of different moving parts this year and new guys, so it’s just a learning process.”
It’s worth noting that even with Hendon Hooker, Mays, Cedric Tillman and Velus Jones Jr., UT only went 7-6 in 2021. Hooker also threw a bad interception against the Pittsburgh Panthers to lose the first game he actually saw significant action.
Then there was the loss to the Ole Miss Rebels in which the offense was never able to get consistent, and the unit would disappear for quarters at a time that year. Mays noted Tennessee Football is going through the same type of growing pains this year.
“It was the same type of stuff happening back in the day, and it’s just small stuff,” he said. “The margins are small, and you’ve just got to be able to connect efficiently and move the ball, and I think we’re going to get there. I think we’re getting there right now.”