Senior defensive end Robert Ayers was arguably not the most logical choice to represent the University of Tennessee defense at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. But for the South Carolina native, it was another step in his journey to maturity.
A voyage that has included tough love from the coaches and has the handstamp of Vol leader Inky Johnson.
"Inky is a special person," Ayers said. "Seeing him go through what he has gone through and being positive about it, I don't think I could have handled it the way he did. I don't know that I would be living my life the way he does. Seeing a guy who can overcome things that he has gone through, then I feel that I can overcome things just by being stronger and being around him. I honestly want to play for him. He is an inspiration for everyone to do well."
Despite being nearly two years removed from the catastrophic injury, Johnson remains more than the straw that stirs the drink for the Vols.
"Inky is the heart of this team, period," running back Arian Foster said. "No one would tell you otherwise. He is still the motivating factor. I consider him a brother. It's just the inspiration he brings. I will go out to dinner with him. I talk to him all the time. We talk about life and everything. Not just football. It's about what he brings with his heart and passion and what he believes, it's just priceless."
Head coach Phillip Fulmer said he is not surprised at all by Johnson's continued influence on his program.
"I am not dumbfounded at all. That is Inky Johnson's personality since he walked onto this campus," said the dean of SEC coaches. "He is an incredible young man. We had to move him up into the student-coach category now. He can't be a player-coach anymore. He is a student coach. He has been back to the (Mayo) clinic and he is making some progress with his arm. His will and his personality is incredible. I almost brought him to Birmingham. He is that kind of guy."
Ayers' bond with Johnson stems from the fact the two are roommates and for Ayers, positive influences as well as a few swift kicks in the rear have turned an immature athlete into a starter and leader for the Vols.
"My career got off to a rocky start," Ayers acknowledged. "But the coaches stuck with me. They believed in me. They had confidence in me being a good player. The have molded me in the right direction and they have put me in situations where I could succeed. I have tried to take advantage of things around me, and now I am looked up to as a leader of this team."
But it was at one point questionable that Ayers could be molded into a leader.
"Coach Fulmer called me in his office and told me, 'Look son, you gotta straighten up. If you want to be a great player then you gotta do thi s,'" Ayers said. "And I was just like, 'Coach, I am tired of doing the wrong things. I am going to straighten up.' Since then I have just tried to follow the lead and the positives of the older guys. I tried to follow in their footsteps surrounding myself with good people like Inky Johnson and Jerod Mayo."
Fulmer said it was not just one meeting, but a series of meetings he had with Ayers.
"There have been a couple of meetings with Robert about such kinds of things," Fulmer said. "To his credit, he's about to graduate. Which I don't think Anybody in Clio, S.C., would have believed at that particular time because he was not serious about school and now he's about to graduate. He's taking his schoolwork seriously.
"We try to spend a lot of time with our players. Robert's taken his share of hugs on the neck and kicks on the butt at the same time."
Thursday, Ayers rewarded Fulmer by representing the University of Tennessee with class in a trip that clearly meant a lot to the defensive end.
"It is a great experience. It's an honor to be down here as a representative of the defense and the University of Tennessee," said the colorful Ayers. "It's a great privilege and an honor to have coach Fulmer bring me down here. I am just trying to enjoy it and have fun with it."
Looking for leaders
For the past two years, Fulmer has not publicly chosen season-long captains and he is not planning on doing that this year. As for the leadership on his team, Fulmer said he believes it is growing.
"I think we are in process of that," Fulmer said. "You lose a Jerod Mayo, who was an unbelievable leader. You lose an Erik Ainge, who was a really good leader for us and that is hard to replace. You look at the offensive side and you start looking at the whole group of guys and you say I've got 11 guys who can be outstanding leaders. On the defensive side I have about 12 or 13 with can they do it and a question mark at the bottom. That is where we are. Those guys are stepping up and trying to, but we are in the process of growing our leadership. We are a team that is bonding and trying to come together. We have not gotten into any trouble since February. We have worked our rears off and have had no real academic problems to this point. We have made some strides."
Foster, who is one of the leaders, said the mindset of the older players on the team is different than in years past.
"When I was a young guy, I wasn't real close to the seniors. There was kind of this void there or this invisible gap that we could never get through. It was kind of unspoken. We would socialize with them, but it wasn't the same. As seniors now, I feel like we are trying to bring the notion that this is 'our teamE2. This isn't the 'seniors team'. This is our team. From freshman up, everyone can contribute. We are all in this together and we try to bring that to the table. You can talk to us about anything and we can talk to you about anything. This is not an us/you. It is an us."
Everyone, everywhere is asking about quarterback Jonathan Crompton and whether or not he can get the job done. Crompton has drawn praise this summer, including from Foster. But the senior tailback said the real respect comes when the lights come on.
"I think he is trying to step up and be a leader. I think it just has to come natural," Foster said. "He is doing everything he has to do. I think everyone will be a lot more respectful of him once he plays on the field and that comes with anyone, not just the quarterback position. You have to earn your respect on the field. He is doing everything he has to do off the field, school wise, football wise and calling team meetings. He is doing what he needs to do. I believe once he steps up and shines, everyone is going to rally around him."
To get hit or to not get hit
As a senior closing in on the all-time rushing record at Tennessee, Foster is facing the pre-season dilemma of a veteran tailback. How much contact do you take?
"It's kind of an awkward situation because you want to do as much as you can, but your body gets worn down. It is a long season. If you sit out all fall camp, how much respect are you going to get from your teammates? We are going through all of this, why are you sitting out. Who are you? I remember feeling kind of the same way with the older guys when I was younger. It is a natural feeling that's human. I want to find a medium. If it was up to me, I would do everything, but that is not going to happen. I was pulled out some spring drills.
"You have to find a medium where you are going through things with your teammates. Summer camp is a bonding experience. Everyone is going through the heat and everyone is doing it together. It's about becoming one and you don't want to single yourself out for any reason. You want to be a part of it."
When the Vols kick it off in Los Angeles, Foster, as we reported in the War Room several weeks ago, will not be in his customary No. 27 jersey. Foster will wear No. 30 out of respect for his good friend, David Holbert.
"Holbert is a strong-willed guy," Foster said. "He is kind of in the beginning stages of his recovery process. When I see him, it hurts me to know what he is having to go through. We kind of grew up together. I think if he just keeps on, he is going to be OK. I go out there every day and he is in the back of my mind. I am going to wear his number at UCLA. That is a big deal to me. I asked him first and he said OK. Every day I work for them (Inky and Holbert), two guys who can't, so I don't want to take anything for granted."
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