ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart doesn’t get surprised by opposing offenses too often, but one of his own starting offensive linemen caught him completely off guard the past offseason.

Smart revealed on Monday he had no idea Cade Mays was considering transferring last January.

The Bulldogs started Mays at left tackle in the Jan. 1 Sugar Bowl, a week before he announced he was leaving Georgia.

“I didn’t have a sense then; I thought Cade had done a tremendous job for us,” Smart said on his Monday Zoom press conference. “I’ve got a lot of respect for Cade as a player and a person. That’s all I can say about it. He’s no longer with us.”

Mays and his new Tennessee teammates will line up across from Georgia at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday at Sanford Stadium (TV: CBS) in a critical SEC East Division showdown.

The Vols (2-0) have won eight straight dating back to last season entering the game with the No. 3-ranked Bulldogs (2-0).

Georgia has plenty of football news going on as it works to find a quarterback to settle on opposite its championship caliber defense.

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The Bulldogs moved on from Mays long ago, but Tennessee coaches and media have kept the story in the headlines throughout the offseason.

The Vols’ and their supporters on social media pressed the issue in what proved to be a successful effort to get Mays eligible for the coming season.

The Mays’ family hired high-profile Knoxville attorney Gregory Isaacs to publicly accuse Georgia of having a “toxic culture.”

Beloved Knoxville congressman Tim Burchett joined the battle by pushing the narrative on Twitter, gaining even more support from his loyalists.

Cade Mays’ attorney says Georgia has ‘toxic culture’

Smart responded to the allegations that his football program had a “toxic environment” on Monday by saying, “I know guys in the SEC will do anything they can to get guys eligible, and that’s their decision.”

Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin was another example of such.

Kiffin, who is also trying to get former UGA defensive back Otis Reese eligible, took to his social media account to support Mays in his quest for eligibility.

Coach Jeremy Pruitt said more than once Mays’ was in a difficult situation at Georgia because of the $3 million lawsuit that his father had filed against UGA as the result of a folding chair incident that led to the amputation of part of a pinky finger.

RELATED: Jeremy Pruitt points finger at Mays’ family lawsuit

An online petition was circulated in Mays’ support, drawing more than 13,000 signatures, and then Pruitt publicly outed the specific SEC administrator responsible for reviewing transfer cases.

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey attempted to settle the situation by referring everyone to a rule that was voted on unanimously by the league’s presidents as recently as 2018.

The previous rule was inner-conference transfers sit out a year unless they were graduate transfers for the school they were leaving had a postseason ban.

But Pruitt and Tennessee kept pushing, pointing out this was a season where no one’s would lose a season of eligibility.

It was enough for Sankey to relent and call for an emergency vote on the matter after the first week of the season.

This time, the SEC presidents approved  a “blanket waiver,” citing COVID circumstances.

SEC grants blanket waiver for all transfers amid ‘unprecedented times’

All SEC inner-conference transfers were approved by the league regardless of the details of their cases.

It doesn’t seem to matter to the Georgia players, who on Monday voiced their support for Mays.

UGA fifth-year senior offensive lineman Ben Cleveland said he couldn’t vouch for any claims of a toxic environment.

“I’ve never seen a problem with our environment,” Cleveland said. “I like our team, and I like our coaching staff. But that’s viewed differently by every individual, so that’s up to them and how they see things.”

Cleveland said he does understand Mays wants to be back in Knoxville with his family.

“You can’t shake your head at a kid for wanting  to do what was best of himself and his family, because ultimately that’s what everyone on the team here wants,” Cleveland said. “Once you are part of the family, we want what’s best for you and what’s best for your family, and that’s what he felt was best for him and his family.

“I felt like we stood behind him as his teammates as he went on that journey,”

Smart said he knows the Georgia defense will have to be ready for Mays, a former FWAA Freshman All-American who played all five line positions for the Bulldogs.

“He’s a really good football player,” Smart said. “One of the toughest players that I have been around, and I am looking forward to the matchup.”

Georgia defensive lineman Malik Herring said much of the same.

“It will be great competition,” Herring said “It will be like old times in practice.”

Said Bulldogs’ tailback Zamir White, “We love Cade at Georgia, and we all wish him the best.”

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