Being at the center of Vols’ turnaround, Cooper Mays means “everything”.

When Cooper Mays Following in the footsteps of his father and (eventually) brother, who played college football in Tennessee, he thought he would enroll in a budding program—only it quickly became a rebuilding project. As a rising junior and starting center for the Vols, Mays came to campus in January 2020, the first month of a year that saw the world turn upside down and Tennessee hit rock bottom. Considering the personal challenges of his first two seasons and his long-standing family ties to the Vols, for the Knoxville native, being part of Tennessee’s rapid rise means “everything,” Mays said this week.

By the time Mays joined the Vols, they’d had quite the recovery performance just into the 2019 season, overcoming a 2-5 start to win six straight games in their second season Jeremy Pruitt. He and older brother cade, who joined the Vols after two seasons in Georgia, arrived together in Tennessee just weeks after the season ended. Then the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and Tennessee didn’t cope very well with the unusual season, stumbling after season-opening victories in South Carolina — where the Vols ranked the No. 5 team in the country on Saturday — and against Missouri.

After an injury-plagued sophomore season, Mays has been a fixture in the middle of a much-improved offensive line that has helped Tennessee’s have the No. 1 offensive line in the nation during a breakthrough season under the head coach as a sophomore Josh Heupel.

“It means everything,” Mays said. “Coming here from a season where we won, I think, seven out of eight, so I thought we were going in the right direction. Then the next year, it didn’t really work out the way we wanted. We didn’t get that many wins and it didn’t feel really good, so to see how many steps we’ve taken since I first came here in 2020 in the Covid year is definitely very special.”

(Photo: Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire, Getty)

Mays, his father Kevin was an All-SEC guard in Tennessee in the mid-1990s, played in all 10 games of his freshman season and usually lined up as a tight end in an unnamed jersey as Tennessee went to his jumbo package under the previous staff. An injury to Brandon Kennedy opened the door for the former Top247 prospect to start the Florida and Vanderbilt games at center. His starting debut in particular was a tough debut for Mays against a top-10 team and he got virtually no practice work in pre-season as the Vols were hit by Covid-related absences.

He entered his second season as a starting center and pacesetter for Tennessee’s new fast offense under Heupel, but suffered an ankle injury in the third series of the opener. He returned to Florida a few weeks later, struggled through a worsening injury and a hand problem, and then missed two more games. Once healthy, Mays started the final six games of the season.

He’s been ubiquitous this season, playing a team’s best 695 snaps.

“Smart, tough, competitive, great personal responsibility in space,” said Heupel. “For us everything starts with him. Just for him, having had a real off-season compared to a year ago and really throughout his career, this was the first real off-season he’s had. Stronger, bigger than him and playing at a super high level. I love what he brings to the table every day.”

In his 20th career start against Missouri, Mays didn’t allow any pressure or sacks and helped the Vols muster a program record 724 yards in a 66-24 win — he was named SEC Offensive Lineman of the Week for his performance and finished fourth Tennessee offensive lineman who received the league’s weekly honors this season.

“He’s a great communicator of me and the back in the backfield and then just up front for the rest of the safety,” quarterback Hendon hooker said. “Just having this power at the top is huge for us. Then to be on the same page, that’s a big deal. If everyone isn’t on the same page, then the piece is dead. It starts with them, so he brings that energy and positive vibes with him every day. Whenever we are in training he always cracks a few jokes and keeps us going through the tough days of training or camp. It’s a great guy to work with.”

Mays attributed the success of Tennessee’s offensive line, which brought back four starters as of 2021 but has seen noticeable improvements individually and overall this season, to the position of veteran coach Glen Elarbee. Get it right Darnell Wright was the SEC offensive lineman of the week twice and has seen his NFL stocks soar and is a super senior left guard Jerome Carvin played his best football. Sophomore Mays and Right Guard starters Javontez Spraggins have thrived and left tackle point, the unit’s only question mark, hasn’t become the issue some thought might go into the season.

All of this made Tennessee’s offensive line one of nine semifinalists for the Joe Moore Award, given annually to the best offensive line in college football, under the direction of Elarbee, Heupel’s offensive line coach for the past seven seasons in Missouri (2016 ). -17), UCF (2018-20) and now Tennessee.

“Consistency, I would say, is the biggest thing,” Mays said. “You know exactly what you get from Coach Elarbee and he cares about you as a person throughout life. It’s not just football. He cares about your whole person. When you see him coming each day with a consistent energy, you know where it’s coming from, a place of positivity and trying to help you grow. I think we’ve talked about it a lot, everyone talks about touch the line and stuff like that, but Coach Elarbee doesn’t just do it because he’s a coach. He does it because he wants you to be the best person you can be and that shows a little bit in our play I think.”

Mays plays a unique role on the Tennessee offense. As center, he’s responsible for getting first on the football, and he has to do it quickly so the other 10 players can line up around and behind him. The faster he does his job, the faster the offensive can go.

He acknowledged it took time to master the championship because Tennessee’s pace was “unlike any other team in the country,” but welcomed last year’s staff’s unusual request with open arms.

“It needs development,” Mays said. “It didn’t take long for me to realize that, but I’m just the type of guy that’s been like this my whole career. A lot of people probably said I was too short or whatever, so I kind of adapted and just found a way to win. So whatever a trainer told me, I just take it and run with it. Like my freshman year here, I was playing tight end, a new thing. Coming into play with a new offense didn’t matter. I just try to take it head on and do it the best I can.

Elarbee has likened his positional group to a Saturday Night Live skit that brings many different characters together in one room, and Mays likes to think of himself as the top comedian in a lively group of gamers who love to have fun, but obviously work hard too.

“The chemistry is right,” Mays said. “We go in there and have fun. As I said, it starts with Coach Elarbee. I think if you ask Coach Elarbee he loves the briefing room. It’s probably his favorite thing to do all day. He will even say it himself. I don’t know if he’ll tell you all, but meetings are his domain. That’s his place, so it starts from the top down. We walk in there, he blares music, excited and ready for the day, and you just feed on it. We love each other. We’re all trying to achieve the same goal and I think it’s working really well.”