Starting offensive front for opener still a mystery for Vols

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior center Cooper Mays has missed most of this month due to injury, and his status for next week's opener against Virginia is unknown.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior center Cooper Mays has missed most of this month due to injury, and his status for next week's opener against Virginia is unknown.

Sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton III is expected to take Tennessee's first snap of the season a week from Saturday when the Volunteers collide with Virginia inside Nashville's Nissan Stadium.

Who makes that snap is the current unknown.

The Vols have been practicing most of this month without senior center Cooper Mays, who suffered an undisclosed injury in the early stages of camp that, according to coach Josh Heupel, required a "minor procedure." It has yet to be revealed whether the 6-foot-3, 305-pounder from Knoxville will be healthy enough to face the Cavaliers.

"The starting five right now are working very hard," Milton said Thursday in a news conference. "We wish we had Coop back, but the starting five right now are working very hard. They're working on the same communication level, and they're all playing sound football."

Tennessee held its 17th preseason practice Thursday and will work again Friday and Saturday.

Since Mays has been sidelined, Heupel and offensive coordinator Joey Halzle have worked Ollie Lane, Addison Nichols, Parker Ball and Vysen Lang at center. Lane is the most experienced of that bunch, having played in 28 games with five starts at left guard in his Tennessee career, but Halzle said Thursday that every fill-in for Mays has done a good job of maintaining the desired tempo.

"There have been no issues," Halzle said. "That's how we play, and everybody knows how we play. We play one type of way when we take the field, and we're ready to roll."

Mays and senior right guard Javontez Spraggins entered August as Tennessee's most reliable offensive linemen, with each having started the past two seasons. Should Mays be unable to go next week, one potential starting line could have Lane at center, Spraggins at right guard, Texas transfer Andrej Karic at left guard, Miami transfer John Campbell Jr. at left tackle, and either Jeremiah Crawford or Gerald Mincey at right tackle.

Crawford and Mincey shared the starting job at left tackle last year, when Darnell Wright held down the right side. The Vols are having to replace Wright and former starting left guard Jerome Carvin.

"I feel really good about how the offensive line is looking," Halzle said. "There are guys who can rotate in and play a bunch of spots, and it's really helpful having that kind of utilization.

"I feel really good about the five we're going to roll out there with, and I feel we can put a good product on the field with them."


Fulmer procedure

Former Tennessee football coach Phillip Fulmer underwent surgery Thursday at UT Medical Center in Knoxville, with his family announcing the procedure through a statement.

"We are thankful for the outstanding care he's receiving, and we also appreciate the prayers and concern of so many who have reached out," the statement read. "He is looking forward to cheering on the Vols as they kick off another exciting season."

Fulmer, who will be 73 years old on Sept. 1, was alert and in good spirits, according to the statement, which did not provide any surgery specifics. The statement did reveal that he would remain in the hospital for several days.

In his 17 seasons as coach of the Vols, Fulmer compiled a 152-52 record, leading the program to a pair of Southeastern Conference championships and the 1998 national title.


Headphones for all

Milton revealed Thursday that he recently provided his teammates with Beats by Dre Studio Pro Headphones.

"It was just a little NIL deal," Milton said. "Beats reached out, and I did my part of what I needed to do. On the back end of that, they said they had some Beats for the team.

"That's something I always like doing -- helping these guys out any way possible."


Constant talker

Halzle provided a noticeable difference from this time last year, when Alex Golseh had the role of offensive coordinator and Halzle was his quarterbacks coach.

Golseh became South Florida's head coach in December.

"You have to talk a whole lot more," Halzle said. "You've got to talk the whole meeting. I'm kind of done talking by the end of the day. I'm not a big talker."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.

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