October 30, 2008

Inside the helmet: An Ayers about him

The old Robert Ayers, insulated from his surroundings with music blaring through oversized, noise-canceling headphones, would not have handled a position change well.

Of this much, Robert Ayers Version 4.0 is certain. The 6-foot-3, 270-pounder had signed with Tennessee four years ago out of Marlboro County High School in Clio, S.C., to be a linebacker. He'd had a 28-tackle game in high school, and college, eventually, would be more of the same. Or so the logic went.

So Ayers didn't readily accept that his frame and athleticism would be better suited to playing defense with a hand in the dirt. And this year, with injuries mounting and the Vols' interior line as thin as Paris Hilton sideways, Ayers recently has been asked to move inside.

"When I first moved to defensive end, I kind of rebelled against coach (Steve) Caldwell and he will tell you the same thing," Ayers said. "I was thinking that I didn't come here to play defensive end. I came to play linebacker. I didn't like it very much. It hurt me in the long run.

"If they had moved me to tackle, I would have been real mad. I would have asked them why they keep moving me so much. But I have matured a lot and it's whatever it takes to win."

Winning has been Ayers' singular focus this season. The once-mercurial end had a standout, coming-of-age performance in the Vols' 26-14 loss at Georgia. Ayers, now with 29 tackles on the season, would hear nothing of it, insisting only Tennessee's defeat mattered.

The old Robert Ayers might have been a little more willing to find solace in a stat sheet.

"Last year, I was the backup and I put a lot of pressure on myself and I worried about the wrong things," said Ayers, who's started all eight games this season and has a team-high nine tackles-for-loss. "I was going in there trying to make every play. Now I understand the defense better and I realize that every play is not made for me to make.

"Sometimes I have to pull down the tackle and let the SAM linebacker come free and help Nevin (McKenzie) or Eric Berry out, whereas before I wanted to make every play myself. It's not just about me. I have to be willing to take on a double team to help someone else get free. Things like that and it's paying off for me this year."

That approach has yielded dividends well beyond the football field, according to Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer.

"Robert is entirely different. He didn't really understand how hard it was to play in this league, he didn't really want to be coached very much, he already had all the answers when he was a freshman," said Fulmer, whose belief in Ayers has been rewarded with the senior captain's fierce loyalty to his coach. "He has been an unbelievable leader both vocally and by example; very unselfish.

"He's really pushed himself into a place where a guy you really didn't like being around very much with being impatient and pushy but you saw the potential not just as a player as a person, now he's one of those guys you really enjoy being around.

"He's helped himself in a lot of ways. He will have his degree at the end of the semester. Nobody thought he would have his degree, period. He's turned into quite the conscientious student. Great story. One of the reasons that we're here."

A constant influence in Ayers' maturation process has been his roommates; none of them more important than Inky Johnson, who credited Ayers for similarly helping him in life.

"I've seen Rob grow a great deal. I've seen grow up from being like not listening to anybody to taking advice from people and just you know, putting his priorities in the right order in life," said Johnson, a former Vols defensive back who suffered a devastating career-ending injury in 2006 against Air Force. "I think that will take him a long way, and being around him, I learned a lot also. He helped me with a lot of aspects of life, and when I got hurt, being around guys like him, Ramon Foster, Jerod Mayo, Sinclair Cannon, and those cats, they helped me out a lot. In return, I try to help them every chance I get by talking about life and football and things outside of football."

Like Fulmer, Johnson marveled at Ayers' improved classroom approach and cited Ayers' family as a driving force. Ayers couldn't agree more.

"When I first got here, there was a lot of bumps in the road," said Ayers. "I wasn't too serious about school. I let a lot of things distract me. When I sat back and looked at it, it was a lot of motivation for me to do better. I felt like I was letting my parents down and my family down. And I didn't want to let them down. That was a lot of my motivation to get on the right path."

Ayers, perhaps more so than any other Vol, has been outspoken about Tennessee's unacceptable path this season. He had grandiose visions for his final campaign and first as a full-time starter. Reconciling those goals has not come easily.

"It's all or nothing. When it's your senior year, it's all or nothing," he said. "Everyone has aspirations of going to the NFL, but that is not a given. You have to live out the moment now. You can't think about the future. You just focus on the now. Going into the season, I knew I had 12 definite and two extra possible (games) and now I have four more with one extra possible.

"You just try to put everything into it and lay it all on the line. It's getting rough knowing that I only have four or five more. I just have to keep fighting."

Johnson expects nothing less from his roommate.

"Rob's grown up a lot, and I think he realizes that a degree, if he's blessed to play at the next level, you still in life need a degree because that opens up a lot of doors for you," said Johnson. "We sat down and discussed that a lot, all of our roommates. Getting a degree is very important to all of us.

"They can take football away from you, but they can't take your brains away from you."

The same could be said for Ayers' maturity.

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