How Trey Smith's decision and Cade Mays' transfer impacts the Vols' 2020 OL
Let’s start with this, if I were Trey Smith, I would’ve announced my decision to go pro this afternoon.
With the uncertainty surrounding Smith’s health situation — twice in the last two years Tennessee’s offensive lineman had to stop playing football due to blood clots and related issues — securing my financial future and not playing another down of football for free seems like the prudent move.
But I’m not Trey Smith.
And I won’t begrudge any player who elects to go pro or return to school, no matter their decision. Everyone makes a choice for their own reasons. Smith loves Tennessee, and he wrestled with his choice for the last few weeks. He’s betting on himself, and that’s admirable.
Ultimately, the Jackson native believes Tennessee’s medical plan — one that limited his contact and practice time in 2019 — worked in keeping him healthy but that his development as a player was stunted a bit by a lack of reps. In his estimation, returning for another season will help his draft stock in 2020.
I don’t know if that’s absolutely true, but Smith’s decision to return to school, coupled with Wednesday’s news that former 5-star Cade Mays transferred to Tennessee, leaves the Vols’ offensive line with some fascinating sliding door possibilities in 2020.
Smith’s decision is unequivocally a boost for the Vols, as all five starters from Tennessee’s win over Indiana in the Gator Bowl are now set to return for the 2020 season. This now includes Smith and senior Brandon Kennedy, who announced after the comeback victory that he had been granted a sixth-year of eligibility.
Sophomores Wanya Morris, who started 12 games at left tackle, and Darnell Wright will also be back, same for contributing veterans like Jerome Carvin, who became a fixture at right guard late in the season, K’Rojhn Calbert, who actually beat out Wright for the right tackle job toward the end of the year, and Riley Locklear.
Redshirt freshmen Chris Akporoghene and Jackson Lampley remain in the mix, and freshmen Cooper Mays, James Robinson and Javontez Spraggins should infuse the room with more depth.
The wild card returnee is Jahmir Johnson, who has one season of eligibility remaining but was largely a spectator in 2019 after starting 11 games in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season on Rocky Top. A healthy (and focused) Johnson could compete for a job this fall, or Johnson, who has released a slew of opaque tweets during the season, might seek greener pastures elsewhere.
But Cade Mays’ bombshell decision to transfer home could shakeup Will Friend’s entire thinking about his OL in 2020.
First off, we know that Smith prefers to play inside over tackle, which likely locks him into the left guard spot. Kennedy is also presumably cemented as the team’s steady hand at center.
So how could the rest of the OL shake out?
For starters, we don’t know if Mays will get a waiver for immediate eligibility in 2020. He’ll certainly try.
Sam Pittman played Batman in saving Kevin Mays’ finger three years ago, and while Cade ended up signing with Georgia anyways, the family’s current lawsuit is an interesting argument for a hardship claim. Recent history suggests (see: guys like Deangelo Gibbs and Brenton Cox) that transferring within the SEC makes it much more difficult to get cleared for immediate eligibility, but Mays’ decision to leave UGA prior to his junior season suggests he believes he has a strong case. His lawyer, NCAA powerbroker Tom Mars, certainly believes as much.
So if **** again, IF, **** Mays is eligible in 2020, what could Tennessee’s offense line look like?
The Vols finished the 2019 season with the nation’s No. 113 OL unit, per Pro Football Focus. Smith was the only player to grade out in the 70s (78.6). The Vols finished with the nation’s 124th pass-blocking grade, and 76th run-blocking grade.
The unit was demonstratively better at limiting negative plays (69 TFLs allowed in 2019 vs. 92 in 2018), but on the whole, it still was a below-average group. Morris and Wright (especially) took their lumps, while Calbert, Kennedy, Carvin and Locklear struggled with consistency.
Mays’ addition gives Friend flexibility and options, though.
The former Knoxville Catholic standout is a Swiss Army Knife lineman who played all five positions at Georgia in 2019, starting 11 games. At a position where guys get beat up all the time, that versatilely cannot be discounted.
According to PPF, Mays’ snaps in 2019 were…
108 at LT
59 at LG
46 at C
336 at RG
64 at RT
27 at TE (extra tackle, really).
On paper, with Mays in the fold, Tennessee could have one of the better OLs in the SEC.
Mays did struggle some late in 2019, losing playing time the last three weeks of the season (he played reserve snaps against Auburn, Georgia Tech and LSU). With two starters declaring for the NFL Draft, Mays started the Sugar Bowl win over Baylor and saw all 72 snaps at left tackle.
Still, the 6-8, 320-pound mauler comes to Tennessee plenty motivated and should bring the Vols some added physicality and nasty.
Mays is not a natural left tackle, but he’s capable of holding his own at right tackle. If Wright still isn’t ready and Mays proves more consistent than Calbert, then Friend could slide Mays into the right tackle spot and see how the rest of Tennessee’s OL shakes out.
The more obvious and natural spot for Mays is right guard, however.
Right guard fits Mays’ style and skill-set, and it’s a position he’s played more than any other in college (671 of 1,158 career snaps, per PFF). He offers more upside than Carvin, Locklear or Akporoghene at that spot, too.
Ultimately, with Smith back and Mays on campus, the Vols will have a full spring to get in the lab and experiment with various OL combinations.
There’s a chance they end up opening the 2020 season with four prospects who were once rated a 5-star recruit by one recruiting service or another. They could also see guys like Calbert or Carvin or others elevate their game with the added competition and claim a spot.
However it shakes out, Tennessee’s offensive line has seriously benefited from a pair of Volunteer State natives opting to spend their 2020 seasons on Rocky Top.