It could always be assumed that Cooper Mays had his share of challenges growing up two years behind older brother Cade, who has always been taller, bigger and more heralded.
On Wednesday evening, Cooper admitted as much.
"We didn't really fight a lot," Cooper said on a Zoom call containing the two brothers. "Our parents kept us in line, and our mom didn't let that fly — him beating up on me. Having a brother who accomplished so much stuff a couple of years before you and feeling like you have to live up to that stuff and having a lot of people talk about it — that was the hardest thing."
The Mays brothers arrived at Tennessee via different paths but now occupy the same status, which is a first-team spot on Josh Heupel's inaugural Volunteers football team. Cade, a 6-foot-6, 325-pound senior, is known for his versatility and has practiced at various spots on the offensive line, while Cooper, a 6-3, 295-pound sophomore, is entrenched at center.
Cooper made a pair of starts at center late last season against Florida and Vanderbilt, with his nod against the Gators resulting in a family moment that will never be forgotten.
"We didn't really know during the week whether Cooper would be playing or if Brandon Kennedy would be back," Cade said. "When we were at the hotel and found out Cooper would be playing, we were so excited. When we lined up for that first play, I had to pinch myself."
Said Cooper: "I was just really nervous, going up against a team like Florida for your first start. I felt like I was about to go up against NFL competition."
The Vols lost against the Gators and lost a lot last season, with the 3-7 finish resulting in Tennessee's eighth losing record in the past 13 years. That did not, however, dampen the thrill that the sons of former Tennessee guard Kevin Mays shared in being together.
Cade did not originally pick his father's alma mater, choosing after his senior season at Knoxville Catholic in 2017 to bypass a Vols program that went 4-8 for Georgia, which won the Southeastern Conference championship that year and played for the national title. He was a Freshman All-American for the Bulldogs in 2018 and made 11 starts as a sophomore, when he played all five positions.
Last season, after relocating from Athens to Knoxville, Cade made six starts at right guard but has worked at guard and tackle this spring.
"I can play anywhere, but where I feel I can play my best ball is right guard," Cade said. "I can play right tackle, and I'm really starting to get my fundamentals down at tackle. I feel more comfortable out there than I've probably ever felt, but when I grade myself, I feel like I play my best ball inside at right guard."
While Cade was a five-star prospect in the 2018 class, Cooper was a four-star signee last year. Cooper considers playing with his older brother "everything we've asked for," and he believes things have changed since their Knox Catholic days.
"I think the dynamic is a lot different than I would have thought," Cooper said. "In high school, there are probably a few clips of him wringing my neck a little bit after a play if I had messed up, but here I've matured a little bit more and have come into my own. He doesn't really need to correct me that much."
The way Cade sees it, Cooper never did need much correcting.
"When I was in high school and going through the process and stuff, and even when I got out of high school and would see articles, I always told people that Cooper was going to be just as good if not better than me," Cade said. "He's an old soul, and even as a young guy, he was always acting older than he actually was and took stuff more seriously than other people his age.
"I'm just super thankful for our friendship and how close we've gotten to be since I've come back home. You can't beat it. It's the thing that brothers dream of."
Herring the first
Elijah Herring, a linebacker from Murfreesboro's Riverdale High School, became the first commitment of the Heupel era on Wednesday by providing a nonbinding pledge to the Vols.
The 6-2, 225-pounder is the nation's No. 49 outside linebacker, the No. 29 player from the Volunteer State and the No. 729 overall recruit in the 247Sports.com composite rankings. He has received scholarship offers from Arkansas, Michigan, Mississippi State and Missouri.