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VOL. 44 | NO. 3 | Friday, January 17, 2020

Suddenly, UT’s offensive line is envy of SEC

By Rhiannon Potkey

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Tennessee Volunteers offensive lineman Trey Smith, who says he will forego the NFL Draft and return for another season at Tennessee, celebrates with fans after defeating South Carolina in October.

-- Photo By Bryan Lynn | Icon Sportswire

For much of the last few seasons, Tennessee’s offensive line has been the subject of ridicule and frustration.

But thanks to a big announcement, solid recruiting and a severed pinky finger, the unit might transform into the team’s biggest strength in 2020.

The Vols received a wave of good news last week when Trey Smith announced he was returning for his senior season and Knoxville native Cade Mays announced he was transferring to Tennessee from rival Georgia.

Smith decided to bypass the NFL draft to improve his stock and honor his late mother by completing his degree. The offensive guard made a successful comeback from a career-threatening medical issue to earn first-team all-Southeastern Conference honors this past season.

“We’re building something special here at Tennessee,” Smith said during a press conference to announce his decision. “I believe in this coaching staff. I believe in the players we have coming. We’re building something special. We have unfinished business this next season.”

Smith paid homage to Peyton Manning by quoting the Vols quarterback legend verbatim in announcing his return just like Manning did for his senior season in 1997.

“I’ve made up my mind and don’t expect to ever look back. I’m going to stay at the University of Tennessee.”

Smith, a Jackson native, was the No. 1 recruit in the nation in 2017 according to ESPN. He was a freshman All-American before blood clots were found in his lungs in February 2018.

He was put on blood thinners and eventually cleared to play, but missed the final five games of the season after school officials said doctors found blood clots in his lungs again.

Tennessee team physician Chris Klenck clarified last week that Smith had “displayed symptoms that were somewhat worrisome for a recurrent blood clot episode,” but that additional tests have given him confidence the issue wasn’t a recurrence.

Smith was cleared to play last season after doctors designed a plan to minimize his risk for recurrence of the blood clots.

“We implemented that plan this past season, and Trey did an outstanding job and was able to excel,” Klenck explains. “Now that we have a season’s worth of experience, we plan to fine tune his treatment plan and continue it into the spring and 2020 season.”

Smith says he believes playing one more full season in college could help answer any questions NFL teams may have about his long-term health issues before deciding whether to invest in drafting him.

“We sent my film off and got it evaluated by the college advising board. They recommended that I come back,” Smith continues. “After thoughtful prayer and consideration, I decided it was the best option.”

The Mays transfer news came with an unexpected twist.

His parents, Kevin and Melinda Mays, filed a lawsuit against the University of Georgia in December stemming from Kevin losing part of his pinky finger after it was caught in a folding chair at a dinner for recruits two years ago at Sanford Stadium.

Tom Mars, the family’s attorney, says Mays has a strong case to be granted immediate eligibility for the Vols.

Mars accused Georgia of leaking news of the lawsuit to sports writers a day after Cade Mays delivered a letter to Georgia head coach Kirby Smart explaining the reasons he was leaving the program. UGA released a statement denying the accusations.

Cade made 18 starts and played in 25 games over two seasons at Georgia, earning freshman All-America honors in 2018.

Mays is adding another layer to the family legacy at Tennessee.

His father was a team captain at Tennessee and an all-Southeastern Conference guard in 1994. His younger brother, Cooper Mays, recently signed with the Vols and began classes last week as an early enrollee.

If Cade Mays receives a waiver, the Vols could feature four five-star prospects on the offensive line in Mays, Smith, Darnell Wright and Wayna Morris.

Redshirt senior Brandon Kennedy, a former four-star recruit, announced last month he had been granted a medical waiver for a sixth season of eligibility.

“You go from being in the bottom third of SEC offensive lines with no Trey and no Cade to now being in the top third, and quite possibly being the second-best group in the league coming back next year,” explains SEC analyst and former Auburn offensive lineman Cole Cubelic.

“You have the best player in the league, not just the best offensive lineman in Trey Smith. That is how much of a difference he makes.”

Cubelic was a little surprised by Smith’s decision to return, but understood why he bypassed the draft this year.

“There are going to be some question marks around his status. I talked to a couple of scouts at games about it, and a lot of them just don’t know what to think,” Cubelic says. “There isn’t a real blueprint for how to manage a situation like his, and I think a lot of uncertainties bring fear with franchises.”

After all he’s endured the last two seasons just to play the game he loves, Cubelic hopes Smith gets a chance to prove his true worth.

“I am excited Trey decided to come back, because Trey deserves better than getting drafted in the third or fourth or fifth round just because somebody generates this fear of his health,” Cubelic continues. “He can remove a lot of that doubt. He is a first-round talent and deserves to be drafted in the first round.”

Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt says Smith has practiced in full pads just twice over the last 12 months. Pruitt adds doctors have indicated it might be possible for Smith to have one day of full-contact practice per week next season.

“We are excited that he is coming back. He is a huge piece of our football team,” Pruitt points out. “He is a great leader and a great player. Once he decided to do this, you heard him, there is no looking back. He is ready to get started and we are too.”

During his speech at the podium, Smith choked up when speaking about his late mother, Dorsetta Smith, who died in 2015 at age 51. He promised her he would get a college degree no matter how far football took him.

“It is just one of the things she emphasized while growing up. I have to get an education. It is something nobody can ever take away from me,” says Smith, who is scheduled to complete his bachelor’s degree in sport management in May. “That is something that has always stuck with me. It is one of my goals in life – to get an education, get my degree and play in the NFL.”

Having already made a big impact at Tennessee on and off the field, Smith says he can achieve even more before he pursues his professional dreams.

“I wanted to come back here and be great. I want to leave a legacy at Tennessee,” Smith says. “I love this university and I love the people. But coming back it was ultimately a business decision. You have to take that into account. It is business at that level.”

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