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Tennessee C Cooper Mays part of Vols’ OL that could be thin but great leader

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It has to be hard to not have a bit of a flashback when Tennessee center Cooper Mays missed the final few practices of spring camp last month. After all, it’s hard to forget what happened when Mays missed the Florida game last season.

In case you don’t remember, the Vols lost that game in Gainesville 29-16 despite having what most would consider a better team than the Gators. Why did the Vols lose? Well, breaking in quarterback Joe Milton, who was making his second run at a starting position, proved too difficult to overcome. Doing so without an All-SEC center like Mays is even harder.

“I’m fine. I’m fine,” Mays said during the Vol Report when asked about missing the last part of spring practice for purely precautionary reasons.

Mays has every intention of being healthy and playing every game this season. If he’s not, however, the Vols have leaders to depend on more so than ever before, such as right guard Javontez Spraggins and right tackle John Campbell, Jr. Both have assumed more leadership roles after 37 and 27 starts, respectively.

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“I don’t think anybody’s really naturally born a leader,” Mays said. “I think it’s something that you work at over time and build on. I think the biggest thing is we’re grown and older guys that are mature and that just leads to being a leader. 

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“I think when you see guys that have done it a long time and have done it at a higher level, then people are going to follow behind them naturally.”

It’s not Tennessee’s starters that the Vols are worried about as leaders considering they return four of them, if you count Andrej Karic, who missed the Vols’ last seven games with an injury last season before starting at jumbo tight end, right tackle, left tackle and four starting assignments at left guard last season.

While the immediate help may not be there, Mays said the Vols’ youngest crew of offensive linemen have made an impression on him.

“Really all the young guys that stepped up, you know, and had to take a lot of reps,” Mays said. “It’s spring ball. So this is kind of when young guys get the brunt of the blow, kind of more times than not. So for kids to come in here and graduate early and participate in spring ball and do good, it’s a huge, huge, huge positive. So that was that was my biggest takeaway from spring. And still coming out of it is just how those guys were doing.”

When asked about Karic, Mays said, “Really hungry. He’s a guy that plays the game the right way and does stuff the right way. A really good player that he’ll be for us this year for sure.”

That would be huge for the Vols. With three other starters and a highly rated transfer from LSU, the Vols’ offensive line figures to be a team strength with former Tiger Lance Heard at left tackle, but there doesn’t seem to be much depth. Still, Tennessee head coach Josh Heupel said recently said this is the best roster he’s had during his three previous seasons at Tennessee.

”I trust whatever coach says,” Mays said of the compliment. “Obviously, you got to see results on the field before you can deem a team better than any other team. But, yeah, we got a lot of we got big shoes to fill in that regard then.”

Having Mays in those big cleats are certainly a big factor in what the Vols can accomplish this season. No one wants another Florida-like episode with first-year, full-time starter Nico Iamaleava on the field.

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