Who will be Tennessee's center of attention Saturday afternoon when the Volunteers host Pittsburgh in the Johnny Majors Classic?
That's to be determined.
Tennessee's most notable personnel loss during last week's opening 38-6 defeat of Bowling Green in Neyland Stadium resulted from the ankle injury sustained by center Cooper Mays in the first quarter. Mays returned just before halftime and was noticeably hobbled, and that would be all that evening for the 6-foot-3, 295-pound sophomore from Knoxville.
Senior left guard Jerome Carvin shifted in to replace Mays at center, with redshirt junior Ollie Lane coming off the bench to replace Carvin.
"If Cooper isn't able to play, you'll see a little bit more rotation," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said Thursday in a news conference. "Here in the last 48 hours, Coop has made some really good jumps, and we'll find out Saturday morning where he's at and whether he's able to go or not."
Left tackle Darnell Wright, right guard Javontez Spraggins and right tackle Cade Mays also started the opener and helped the Vols amass 475 yards, including 331 on the ground. Tennessee's biggest offensive drought during the contest, however, occurred right after Mays went down.
"The first half was kind of a shock, but then I got comfortable and kept rolling," Carvin said this week about switching positions. "Our tempo was too slow, so I've got to push our tempo even more. I have to do a better job of that."
Heupel's offenses at the University of Central Florida hung nearly 1,000 combined yards on Pitt during their meetings in the 2018-19 seasons.
During UCF's 45-14 romp in 2018, the Knights tallied 568 yards behind quarterback McKenzie Milton, who threw four touchdown passes and scored twice on the ground. The Panthers won 35-34 the next season, when UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel threw for 338 yards and two touchdowns but was intercepted twice.
The Knights also allowed a blocked punt returned for a touchdown as Pitt built a 21-0 lead and helped negate UCF's eventual 423 total yards.
"In some ways, you've got to be patient and be able to create some big plays in the run game and pass game," Heupel said. "The difference in the game two years ago was the turnovers early. We started extremely slow with some things that we could have controlled on offense. This is a good football team in all three phases, and on defense they are veteran and physical in that front seven, and their safeties do a great job in run support.
"We've got to create some seams and make some big plays. It's going to be man press on the outside, so we've got to be able to make some one-on-one plays."
Redshirt junior quarterback Joe Milton, the graduate transfer from Michigan, completed 11 of 23 passes for 139 yards and a touchdown in his Tennessee debut, and he also rushed 14 times for 44 yards and a score. Heupel was asked Thursday whether he thought Milton was flat-footed in the pocket on occasion.
"He got off balance a couple of times, but there have been some things he's done right," Heupel said. "He'll be in a better position here this week."
Odds and ends
Heupel did not disclose whether any players have been dealing with COVID-19 or the accompanying protocols but did say the team's vaccination rate is above 85%. ... When asked to update the availability of running back Tiyon Evans for Saturday, Heupel said: "I don't have any comment on any of our guys — injury or where they're at. We always show up and make those determinations on Saturday. We're still a long ways away from kickoff."