ATHENS — Georgia football offensive lineman Cade Mays was once considered the cornerstone of Tennessee’s football future, but on Saturday he’ll be going head to head against his home state school.
Plenty of eyes from Knoxville will take note of when and where the Bulldogs’ No. 77 lines up in the 3:30 p.m. matchup on Saturday at Sanford Stadium (TV: CBS, Radio: WSB 95.5 FM, 750 AM).
Georgia coach Kirby Smart is well aware the game will hold special significance for the Mays family.
Kevin Mays, Cade’s father, was an All-SEC offensive guard in 1994 under Vols’ hall of fame coach and current athletic director Phillip Fulmer.
“I think they understand and acknowledge it’s a big deal for them, being his dad played there, he’s a legacy and all that,” Smart said Tuesday night.
“But at the end of the day, when you get between the lines, a lot of that stuff fades out. You start playing the game, you play physical, you play hard.”
Cade Mays has already proven valuable for the No. 2-ranked Bulldogs, drawing his first career start at left tackle against Middle Tennessee on Sept. 15 with incumbent Andrew Thomas sidelined by an ankle injury.
Thomas is back from the injury, but now junior right guard Ben Cleveland is out with a broken fibula, and Smart has worked Mays along with two other players at that position.
Indeed, the 6-foot-6, 318-pound Mays has been every bit the impact player his 5-star rating out of Knoxville Catholic High School suggested he would be.
“We’ve been going against each other since spring, bumping heads and getting each other better,” said junior David Marshall, a 6-3, 274-pound run-stopping defensive end. “He’s powerful and he has good footwork.”
Tennessee’s former coaching staff felt the same way, making Mays a lockdown priority in the 2018 signing class after signing the nation’s No. 1-ranked player in the 2017 class (ESPN), offensive tackle Trey Smith.
Mays had committed to Tennessee on July 13, 2015 and set to work helping to recruit more in-state prospects to the Vols.
“Today was about just trying to get the mid-state, West Tennessee and Tennessee kids in general to realize where their home is,” Mays said on the Vols’ 2016 Junior Day, asked about his role in attracting other players.
But when the Vols’ 2017 season took a downward turn, Mays dreams of competing for championships wearing the orange and white faded.
Georgia was in position to take advantage, and Mays de-committed on Nov. 7, 2017 — five days before Butch Jones was fired in the aftermath of a loss at Missouri that dropped Tennessee 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
The Vols had entered the 2017 season with the SEC’s top-ranked recruiting class, but Mays was the fourth de-commitment in five weeks. It was part of a cascade of events that triggered former AD John Currie to make a move with hopes of saving the 2018 recruiting class.
Mays, meanwhile, was merely looking out for his own best interests.
“I think that Georgia is a great academic institution, it’s a place (Mays) knew he had a chance to come in and play,” Smart said. “He wanted to play for championships, I know that’s important him and he really had a good relationship with Coach (Sam) Pittman.
“At the end of the day that long-term relationship with him probably won out, especially with them having a new staff coming in.”
Tennessee threw the kitchen sink at getting Mays back on board, with Fulmer making a personal pitch as well as coach Jeremy Pruitt and his new staff.
But former Vols’ players said they understood why Mays went ahead to Georgia.
“If I’m a top recruit, I’m just thinking about if I’m Cade Mays or if I’m Kevin Mays that kid deserves to play for a championship,” former Tennessee tailback Aaron Hayden said on a radio show hosted by former Vols’ receiver Jayson Swain, according to Saturday Down South.
“He walks in at Clemson he’s probably starting, not next year but maybe the year after that. Why should you lower your expectations because your dad graduated or played at the University of Tennessee?”
Mays’ December signing with Georgia was accentuated by a Snapchat video that surfaced with him singing alternative lyrics to “Dixieland Delight” that disparaged Tennessee and Auburn.
Georgia and Tennessee fans have long moved on from the recruiting battle, and Smart is pleased with the effort and focus Mays has shown in Athens moving forward in his career.
“He wants to do as good as he can, but he’s got to focus on what his assignments are playing football,” Smart said. “Hopefully, he’ll be a guy out there, we still don’t know how the lineup is going to play out, but he’s a great guy and he plays hard.
“At the end of the day I know he’ll give an A effort.”
And, at the end of the day, Mays’ story is just one of many chapters in the longstanding rivalry between Tennessee and Georgia.
DawgNation: Georgia football vs. Tennessee