There have been a handful of Tennessee football players that have been focal points as potential early entrees into the NFL Draft. Receivers Cedric Tillman and Jalin Hyatt, offensive tackle Darnell Wright and edge rusher Byron Young made public decisions that they would forgo their eligibility and enter the NFL Draft.
Those were significant losses. It could have been worse.
Several players quietly judged their NFL draft stock and considered an early exit from Tennessee football. Some just weren’t as discussed. Center Cooper Mays was one of those players. Fortunately for the Vols, he has decided to return for his senior season in 2023 and informed Tennessee coach Josh Heupel of his intentions on Wednesday. Needless to say, Heupel was quite pleased.
“Just going over it with my family and kind of just looking over it. I think I’ve got unfinished business here…I just want to go back into another year here and get better and get everybody around me better,” Mays said on The Vol Report. “So we’re really excited about what’s going on here.”
As Mays said, he not only wants to get better, as he’s done throughout his career; he wants to get his teammates better. It’s not even 2023 yet, but Mays already knows he wants to be a captain.
“Really big time for me,” Mays said when asked what being a Tennessee football captain would mean. “I pride myself on people respecting me and respecting what I have to say and respecting me as a leader. So I think a big part of my development next year will be…trying to improve everybody else around me.”
It’s been hard for Mays to be a leader throughout his entire football career. His older brother, Cade Mays, has always tended to overshadow Cooper. Cade now plays in the NFL for the Carolina Panthers after playing at Tennessee. The two also played together at Knoxville (Tenn.) Catholic. Cooper decided he wanted to be a leader soon after his older brother left to be a pro.
“I think it starts with what happened last year,” Cooper said when asked when his desire to be a leader began. “I think a big thing for me growing as a leader was your brother going to the NFL. And, you know, it’s probably hard to be a leader when you got an older brother that is the leader, too. So, I mean, kind of just from behind him and being put in that a little bit of a leadership role.
Mays said he was joined in leading Tennessee’s offensive line with Jerome Carvin. The two offensive were the go-to guys when it was crunch time in a game or a rough day at practice.
“I think the big thing for me was how to be more of a vocal leader,” Mays said. “I was kind of more of a quiet kid growing up. Everybody respects what I have to say, but it wasn’t very outwardly, you know, a rah-rah type leader. So I always had the kind of lead by example thing. But I think I’ve been more (vocal) when it comes to getting guys on the right track and being more vocal about it.”
That could come in handy. The Vols are still in the midst of a roster overhaul that may prompt Mays to be a bit more demanding than he’s been in the past. He’s ready for that.
“As every college program does, a lot of young people come in, whether it’s transfers or freshmen,” Mays said. “So you feel pretty confident in your ability to to call somebody out of there dogging it a bit.”
Tennessee football could certainly use one more year of that from Mays.