Vols' Cooper Mays a solid center for offensive attack

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee center Cooper Mays (63) turns his attention to Alabama defensive lineman Justin Eboigbe during last season's game in Tuscaloosa.

Tennessee second-year offensive line coach Glen Elarbee has a lengthy list of characteristics when it comes to being a good center, with two qualities immediately jumping to the forefront.

"Intelligence has to be up there, because you're making decisions so fast," Elarbee said this past week in a news conference. "You're the coach out on the field. You have to change things on third down to get us right, and there is so much involved with that.

"You also have to be the toughest son of a gun out on the field."

Cooper Mays appears to be possessing those traits for the Volunteers and then some.

The 6-foot-3, 296-pound junior from Knoxville Catholic started twice as a freshman and eight times last season, when an ankle injury prevented him from going wire to wire in Tennessee's run to the Music City Bowl. His third year in the program is also his first without older brother Cade, the former five-star Georgia signee who played the 2018-19 seasons with the Bulldogs before transferring back to Knoxville to compete alongside his younger sibling.

While Cade was known for his versatility - of his 35 career college starts, 19 came at right guard, 12 at right tackle, two at left guard and two at left tackle - Cooper has been entrenched over the ball and is adjusting to a new dynamic now that his older brother is property of the NFL's Carolina Panthers.

"Probably around the end of the bowl game going into winter workouts is kind of when I started to feel it," Mays said. "It's kind of hard being a leader when you've got an older brother in the room, so he's stepped away, and now I'm trying to fulfill that role a little bit."

Mays will be flanked by both returning guards, Jerome Carvin on the left side and Javontez Spraggins on the right, and has Darnell Wright at right tackle after Wright played left tackle last season. The only vacancy is left tackle, where Dayne Davis, JJ Crawford and Gerald Mincey are vying.

Elarbee likes the competition he has witnessed at left tackle and is really appreciative of Mays, who has played 650 career snaps for the Vols and has allowed only one sack.

"He's a tough son of a gun, both him and his brother," Elarbee said. "The guy loves the game of football and loves the physical part of it. He will absolutely throw his body around, and he's the old-school type of 'tape it up and keep going.'

"He's stronger, and he's smart. He's way smarter than his coach."

In Tennessee's losses to top-ranked Georgia last season and against Purdue in the bowl, Mays played a combined 200 snaps.

Mays has a Tennessee lineage that not only contains an older brother but a father as well, with Kevin having been an offensive lineman from 1991-94. As a senior, Kevin was a team captain and an All-SEC performer at left guard, with freshman Peyton Manning his quarterback.

This past week, Mays was asked if he has learned more from his father or older brother.

"The game has changed a little bit since 1994, so there is a little bit of a gap in stuff he's preaching and what Cade would tell me with what he's learned," he said with a smile. "My dad always told me to be first off the ball and to play harder than everybody else. I've played that way my whole life.

"I've always been a gritty guy who likes to get in the mix."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.