Mays looking to provide calm for Vols in Saturday’s storm

Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior center Cooper Mays provides instructions during last Saturday's 20-13 win over Texas A&M inside Neyland Stadium.
Tennessee Athletics photo / Tennessee senior center Cooper Mays provides instructions during last Saturday's 20-13 win over Texas A&M inside Neyland Stadium.

More than a year has passed since Tennessee emptied out Tiger Stadium with a stunning 40-13 dismantling of LSU.

Hostile atmospheres haven't been as kind to the Volunteers since as they prepare for this week's journey to Alabama and its 100,077-seat Bryant-Denny Stadium.

In Tennessee's last three games in which the Vols were disadvantaged from a crowd standpoint, they have suffered double-digit losses to Georgia and South Carolina last November and to Florida last month. The Vols were touchdown favorites against the Gators but committed pre-snap penalties on three consecutive offensive possessions as a quick 7-0 advantage turned into a 26-7 halftime deficit in the eventual 29-16 defeat.

"We just need to do our job at a high level," Vols senior center Cooper Mays said this week in a news conference. "If you look at all the things that went wrong in that game, a lot of it was self-inflicted. We've got to go out there and be ready for the moment and have clean communication, even when it's loud out there."

When asked what makes communication so tough in such towering venues away from Knoxville, the 6-foot-3, 305-pounder painted a rather simple picture.

"If you went to your everyday job and somebody put a speaker right next to your head and it was about as loud as it can get, you probably wouldn't be very good at your job," Mays said. "That's the challenge. It's an added level of chaos."

Tennessee has often combated chaos with its own chaos under third-year coach Josh Heupel, with his frenetic offense showing the ability to establish drives and light up scoreboards. The Vols hung 62 points on Missouri and 45 on Kentucky during road trips in the 2021 season, and there was the overtime win at Pittsburgh early last year before the eruption in Baton Rouge.

Winning inside Neyland Stadium has not been a problem for Tennessee, as evidenced by a 13th consecutive victory with Saturday's 20-13 topping of Texas A&M, but now the chore is reversing recent road woes at a venue where the Vols last prevailed in 2003.

"At the end of the day, we've got to do a great job of communicating," Heupel said. "You've got to focus on your job and be dialed into that. It's 11-on-11 when you're inside the lines, so we've continued to work that, and we believe we'll be ready for it."

Mays was a spectator last month in Gainesville due to the fact he had not recovered fully from a hernia procedure early in preseason camp. His season debut was in the 41-20 thumping of South Carolina on Sept. 30, and simply his presence on the field in Tuscaloosa will be plenty uplifting.

"Obviously we'll hear their songs all week, but it's about us being able to focus and lock in," sixth-year senior tight end Jacob Warren said. "A lot of the problems come from a lapse in focus, but I know Coop will do a great job of leading. We'll be on the right calls, (quarterback) Joe (Milton III) will do great, and hopefully it won't be a problem."

Said running backs coach Jerry Mack: "When Coop came back, you could see the communication level increase and the confidence he brings to the table. He exudes confidence in the entire offense."

As a freshman who started twice at center in 2020, Mays didn't do much mixing of verbal counts, hand counts and silent counts due to the limited crowds that were mandated following the outbreak of the coronavirus. His first hostile start was in 2021 at Florida, and there have been plenty more since.

"For your first time, it's going to be pretty eye-opening," Mays said, "but from there, it's just going to be a loud environment every time in the SEC. Every SEC environment is going to be top-notch, and Bama is going to be the same way.

"We've just got to find a way to work around that and prevail from it."

Party committee

Tennessee has racked up 52 tackles for loss and 24 sacks so far this season, and there have been several celebrations that have followed.

So who orchestrates those celebrations?

"We come together as a unit, of course, like a big committee," redshirt junior defensive tackle Bryson Eason said Tuesday in a news conference. "Whoever has the silliest one that we laugh the most at, that's the one we choose. We just want to have fun with what we're doing, because we work so hard."

Seldon improving

Vols freshman running back Cameron Seldon has played in all six games this season, but that has been almost entirely on special teams, as the 6-2, 222-pounder from Browns Store, Virginia, has three carries for 5 yards.

"He's at a really good place right now," Mack said. "I really think that if Cam had to be thrust in the position to go out and play and give us quality reps that he could. He's a guy who stays in the film room and is basically the first one in the building all the time.

"I don't know how much the guy really sleeps."

Line recognition

For a third consecutive season under offensive line coach Glen Elarbee, Tennessee has earned a spot on the Joe Moore Award midseason honor roll, which recognizes the nation's most outstanding offensive line units.

The Vols are among 23 teams on the honor roll, including six from the SEC.

Tennessee's line has helped the Vols compile 443.8 yards per game, which includes a league-leading 231.3 rushing yards per contest.

Contact David Paschall at [email protected].

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