Tennessee was already a good running football team before center Cooper Mays returned to the lineup after suffering an injury during preseason camp. Now, the Vols can be great.
Tennessee’s 231 yards rushing per game is tops in the SEC and fourth in the nation. The Vols are the only team in the SEC with over six yards per carry. At 6.1 yards per attempts, Tennessee is No. 6 nationally. Now, the Vols have Mays back at center where he was named Preseason All-SEC in July. Mays missed the Vols’ first four games and, aside from being a bit gassed at times against South Carolina, he was very close to being completely back to his old form.
“Smart, tough, completive, ability to communicate, get all five guys on the same page within our tempo,” Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said when asked about what Mays brings to the Vols’ offensive line. “That is extremely important. It is important in every offense, but when you are playing with tempo, the recognition of what is going on up front, there are a lot of moving pieces before the snap, and he does a great job of that.
“He is tough and physical and played a lot of football. You’re inside combinations, your pass protection, it is all elevated with his play.”
Tennessee hit the national scene in 2022 thanks to their explosive offense, especially in the passing game. These Vols, however, seem to be a bit different. Now, the Vols are led by a running game that has proven nearly impossible to stop.
“It has been super efficient, been explosive at times,” Heupel said. “There are still things that we can be a whole lot better at. As a coach, you expect perfection. This also is never a game of perfection. Love a lot of what we have done. We have to continue to grow and elevate.”
The Vols also now have depth, a byproduct of having to play without Mays. Senior Ollie Lane started in place of Mays at center during his absence. That opened the door for Texas transfer Andrej Karic to play more at left guard than he would have had Mays not been out. Then, before the South Carolina game, Karic was injured. That meant Lane was ready to naturally slide back to left guard.
“That happened late in the week,” Heupel said. “(I was) pleased with how he played (and) how we played up front. Thought we communicated, were really good in our double teams, so there were a bunch of positives from the football game with all the moving pieces that we had up front.
As we continue to go, we are going to need all of those guys, some that have played a substantial amount of plays and some that maybe have not yet, either. All of those guys will be needed before it is done.”