KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – It’s not a coincidence Tennessee put together its best performance of the season with Cooper Mays back in the lineup. To say the Vols missed the center through the first four games would be an understatement.

The Catholic alum, who had surgery back in August, returned to the field against South Carolina and proved just how much he brings to the Tennessee offensive front.

“He’s smart, tough, competitive,” said Head Coach Josh Heupel. “Great ability to be able to communicate and get all five guys on the same page. Within our tempo, that’s extremely important. It’s important in any offense but when you’re playing from a tempo recognition of what’s going on up front, there’s a lot of moving pieces before the snap and he does a great job of that. It’s all elevated with his play.”

While Heupel enjoyed watching the boost Mays brought to the offensive line, the center said he enjoyed just being back out there with his teammates, playing the game he loves.

“That was the hardest part about being out,” said Mays in regards to missing his team. “So just being back and being able to get into the swing of things and find a little bit of rhythm was good.”

However, Mays is feeling the effects of being back in that tempo offense.

“Sometimes it hurts to play the game,” Mays added. “It’s just how it is. I’ve been a little bit sore.”

After missing a month of the season, Mays played 70 of 74 snaps in his season debut.

“It’s just something we kind of harped on in my recovery process was making sure I do everything I can to stay conditioned and get ready for whenever I do come back and play,” said Mays. “Making sure I was ready for the task at hand.”

“For Coop, he’s tough mentally, physically,” said Heupel. “He’s a great leader inside of our program. Unfortunately that the injury happened early, but he’s been fighting his butt off to get back. Really, pretty pleased with how he played. I think that was a big part of the football game.”