In was by far the biggest December personnel move Tennessee Football could have received, the Vols are getting their anchor back on the offensive line. Center Cooper Mays, their leader, is returning for his super senior season on Rocky Top.
Mays has been a starter on the line ever since the 2020 season. An All-SEC player he may be the best center in the nation when healthy. He announced his decision to return to Tennessee Football for one more season with a post on Twitter.
This decision by Mays comes a day after defensive lineman Omari Thomas announced his plans to return to Tennessee Football. The Vols got a seventh year of eligibility from Keenan Pili at linebacker last week. Javontez Spraggins has hinted he is returning.
Those are by far the most important players to return, and getting back any one of them outweighs any losses they could have suffered on the recruiting trail. Spyre Sports likely knew this and spent more money keeping the current Vols rather than trying to add new ones.
So what does this mean for UT? Expectations are now through the roof. Nico Iamaleava is about to take over at quarterback with a year of experience and more weight on his body. He was created in a lab for Josh Heupel’s system. The only question was his protection.
At center, Mays had to be the anchor, so his return answers that question automatically. However, John Campbell Jr. and Gerald Mincey also confirming their returns while Spraggins implies he’s back meaning Tennessee Football should return four starters up front, which gives Iamaleava a ton of protection.
Regardless of what Bru McCoy does, the Vols still have Squirrel White, and Mike Matthews is a rare talent coming in. As a result, especially with Dont’e Thornton getting healthy, they’re fine at receiver. The defense is now returning almost its whole front seven, which were the only decent players it had anyway.
Simply put, the Vols were fine everywhere. Who they trotted out at center was the biggest question. Remember, they lost to the Florida Gators this past year specifically because Mays was hurt. He makes that big of a difference, so his return is everything.
Now, Iamaleava has the protection to thrive in Heupel’s system, so he should be in New York next year for the Heisman Trophy ceremony. If he is, then Tennessee Football will undoubtedly be in the national championship race, as they were for a while in 2022.
Expect a encore to that season, and remember, Mays will have been the anchor up front for both. This was a transition year for Heupel. Everything was being put into the 2024 campaign, including the NIL funds, and with Mays’ return, that is more evident than ever.