Second-year Tennessee offensive line coach Glen Elarbee has a long list of characteristics when it comes to being a good center, with two qualities that immediately jump to the fore.
“The intelligence has to be up there because you make decisions so quickly,” Elarbee said last week at a press conference. “You are the coach on the pitch. You have to change things on third down for us to be right, and that involves so many things.
“You also have to be the son of a toughest gun in the field.”
Cooper Mays seems to possess these traits for the Volunteers and more.
The 6-foot-3, 296-pound Knoxville Catholic junior started twice as a freshman and eight times last season, when an ankle injury kept him from going from wire to wire during the run of the Tennessee at the Music City Bowl. His third year on 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 returning to Knoxville to compete alongside his younger sibling.
While Cade was known for his versatility — of his 35 college starts, 19 came at right guard, 12 at right tackle, two at left guard and two at left tackle — Cooper was entrenched on the ball and is adjusting to a new dynamic now that his older brother is with the NFL’s Carolina Panthers.
“It was probably towards the end of the bowling game before winter practices that I started to feel it,” Mays said. “It’s kind of hard to be a leader when you have an older brother in the room, so he walked away, and now I’m trying to fill that role a bit.”
Mays will be flanked by the two 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 remaining tackle, where Dayne Davis, JJ Crawford and Gerald Mincey are in contention.
Elarbee loves the competition he’s witnessed at left tackle and really appreciates Mays, who played 650 career snaps for the Vols and only allowed one sack.
“He’s a badass, him and his brother,” Elarbee said. “The guy loves football and loves the physical part of it. He’s absolutely going to throw his body, and he’s an old-fashioned kind of ‘tape it and go on’.
“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 to Purdue in the bowl, Mays played a total of 200 snaps.
Mays has a line from Tennessee that not only contains an older brother but also a father, with Kevin having served as an offensive lineman from 1991 to 1994. As a senior, Kevin was a team captain and All-SEC performer at left guard , with freshman Peyton Manning his quarterback.
Last week, Mays was asked if he learned more from his father or his older brother.
“The game has changed a bit since 1994, so there’s a little bit of a gap between what he preaches and what Cade would tell me with what he’s learned,” he said with a smile. “My dad always told me to be the first to touch the ball and to play harder than everyone else. I’ve played that way all my life.
“I’ve always been a brave guy who likes to get into the mix.”