ATHENS — Cade Mays looked angry coming out of the tunnel, his game face still on beneath his Georgia football helmet following a Sugar Bowl win over Baylor.
The Bulldogs were on the right side of the scoreboard, 26-14. But Mays had his hands full all night, surrendering two sacks and battling Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year James Lynch and a veteran Bears’ D-Line.
One team seems to have their engines started… pic.twitter.com/hUKfxpk8o0
— Cole Cubelic (@colecubelic) January 2, 2020
Did Mays know when he walked off the field at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome that he had played his last game for Georgia?
The Mays’ family had filed their well-documented $3 million lawn chair lawsuit on Dec. 5, two days before the SEC Championship Game.
And yet, Mays was one of the first players Kirby Smart sent out to talk with the media after the Bulldogs’ arrival in New Orleans on Dec. 28.
Less than two weeks later, on Jan. 8, Mays was reported to be in the NCAA transfer portal.
Smart’s choices for player representation are often telling.
Jake Fromm, who recently decided to forego his senior season, was rarely made available the final month of the regular season after his confidence was shaken following a home win over Kentucky that included halftime boos.
Smart said in December the players felt interviews were a “large burden” and “taxing,” explaining why he had closed practices the final month of the season and muzzled players during the bowl prep in Athens.
So as Mays stood before the cameras at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for what would be his last video interview as a Georgia player, some wondered if this could be a sign he would assume captainship of the offensive line.
Cade Mays final video interview as a UGA player, 12-28-19
Mays started 11 of 14 games for the No. 5-ranked Bulldogs this season, lining up at each of the offensive line positions as well as tight end and fullback at different points.
Mays spoke enthusiastically about Matt Luke, who joined the Georgia coaching staff to replace Sam Pittman as O-Line coach after Pittman was hired as Arkansas’ head coach.
“I’m just trying to lead the group,” Mays said, “just trying to get those guys ready, get them confident.”
Those words rang familiar from Mays.
Rocky Top recruit
Some 2 1/2 years earlier, Mays stood in the lobby of the Tennessee football building during one of the busiest recruiting weekends. His message was for the best players in the Volunteer State to stay home and play for the Big Orange, just like he planned to do.
Mays was the cornerstone of a recruiting class of commits that ranked atop the SEC at the start of the 2017 season.
Cade Mays, circa 2017, a proud Tennessee commit and recruiter
A 5-star prospect from Knoxville Catholic High School, Mays’ father, Kevin, was a team captain under College Football Hall of Famer Phillip Fulmer.
But Mays was more than just another recruit. He represented hope Tennessee could continue its ascension under then-coach Butch Jones.
The Vols had cracked the Top 10 for the first time in nearly a decade after a Hail Mary win at UGA in 2016 and closed that season with a third straight bowl victory and record-setting offense.
By November of 2017, the winds had changed atop Rocky Top.
The Tennessee football program was falling apart with each passing week, and the recruiting class began to crumble.
Then-athletic director John Currie buzzed the Tennessee assistants’ offices on Oct. 29, the Sunday morning following a 29-26 road loss to Kentucky. A dejected Jones told his assistants before they left Lexington the defeat would probably cost the staff its jobs.
Mays’ decommitment from Tennessee on Nov. 7, 2017 sealed it; Jones was fired five days later, after a loss to Missouri dropped the team to 4-6.
“I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With Him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” Please respect my decision. pic.twitter.com/ANvoIpP1Bf
— Cade Mays (@cade_mays) November 7, 2017
Predictably, Mays said he dealt with “hate” from many of the same fans who will cheer his return.
The Bulldogs won out over Clemson during Mays’ recruitment, and the former Tennessee 5-star enrolled early and battled his way through spring drills.
An injury to preseason All-SEC pick Andrew Thomas the second game of the 2018 season provided Mays with his first opportunity. He came through with flying colors, stepping in at left tackle in a decisive 41-17 win at South Carolina.
Mays started at left tackle the next week against Middle Tennessee. Then the next week, with Thomas back in the lineup, Mays was called on when starter Ben Cleveland went down at right guard.
Mays went on to become one of three Georgia offensive linemen to earn Freshman All-American honors in 2018, building strong relationships with Pittman and fellow lineman Isaiah Wilson along the way.
But also, Mays was close with his younger brother, Cooper, who Georgia was recruiting.
Cade Mays and little brother Cooper, via Mays’ Twitter account
The Bulldogs, however, backed off Cooper Mays during the recruiting process when he grew ill and lost weight.
Tennessee, with Fulmer a proponent of legacy players, and Jeremy Pruitt aggressive on the trail, stayed true, and the younger Mays is among the Vols’ 2019 early signees.
The question is, when will Cade Mays become enrolled in classes?
It’s a family decision for Mays, nothing more, nothing less https://t.co/tqBRJH2qVA
— Mike Griffith (@MikeGriffith32) January 9, 2020
The SEC office confirmed to DawgNation on Wednesday that Mays would in fact require a waiver to gain immediate eligibility from one league institution to the next.
Highly acclaimed attorney Thomas Mars, who is handling Mays’ case, told DawgNation in an e-mail exchange that actually two waivers are required.
“The NCAA Legislative Relief Staff and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey,” Mars said, would need to grant the waivers.
Typically, Sankey and the league office delay their ruling until after the NCAA staff has weighed in.
Mars said there’s a lot of variation on the timetable for such rulings, but he estimates “4 to 6 weeks.”
Mars said that though he gets involved “at the outset to help them with entry into the (NCAA transfer) portal,” he does not get involved “in any aspect” of where a player transfers to.
There has, however, been a notable exchange between Mars and the University of Georgia. Mars was quoted in the Knoxville News-Sentinel accusing UGA of leaking details of the family’s lawsuit to the media.
“The timing of the news stories about Mr. Mays’ lawsuit makes clear that UGA leaked this story to sports writers today after Cade delivered a letter to Kirby Smart late (Tuesday) explaining the reason he’s leaving Kirby’s program …. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that UGA is continuing to take the low road about the lawsuit, but in my opinion, directing sports writers to Mr. Mays’ lawsuit set a new record low for UGA Athletics.”
The university responded with the following press release, sent out to DawgNation and other media outlets:
“Unlike Mr. Mars, we will not engage in a public discussion of a student eligibility matter, other than to wish the best for Cade and his family. Although the Mays lawsuit is a public document available on the internet, no one at UGA was authorized to discuss it, we’re not aware of anyone who did so, and the reporter who broke the story of the lawsuit has stated that he was not notified by anyone at UGA.”
Battles over Cade Mays, it seems, could prove never-ending.
Vol Nation on all their previous Cade Mays takes… pic.twitter.com/quNlCXP3eI
— Jesse Simonton (@JesseReSimonton) January 8, 2020