Warming trend

After playing high school football in Hampton, Va., and college ball at Tennessee, he struggled a bit with his adjustment to the frigid conditions he has encountered playing pro ball in Massachusetts.

"The first two years were pretty tough,"Jerod Mayo admitted on a Monday teleconference arranged specifically for Tennessee media.

His adjustment to the rigors of the NFL, by comparison, has been a snap. The former Vol linebacker garnered 49 of 50 first-place votes for Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year after posting 128 stops in 2008-09. He recorded more than 100 tackles in 2009-10, despite missing time with a knee injury. As a third-year pro in 2010-11, he led the NFL with 175 regular-season tackles and earned All-Pro recognition.

Clearly, things are warming up for Mayo, who has emerged as the cornerstone of a New England Patriot defense that will face the New York Jets in Round 2 of the AFC playoffs Sunday at 4:30 in Foxboro.

"They're familiar with us, just as we're familiar with them," Mayo said. "This is the third time we've played 'em this year. Anytime you play a team that many times, there's not really going to be many surprises. Hopefully, we can go out there and execute. They have a great team with a bunch of great players. And they just beat a great team in the Colts."

The Colts, of course, are quarterbacked by another former Vol, the legendary Peyton Manning. Asked if he would prefer to be facing Peyton this weekend, Mayo chose his words carefully.

"He's a great quarterback, a great player," Mayo said. "Whoever we have to play we're willing to play them."

Manning tied San Diego's Philip Rivers for the NFL lead in regular-season passing yards, averaging 294 per game. Another former Vol, Arian Foster, led the NFL in rushing with 1,616 yards. Thus, UT alumni Mayo (tackles), Manning (passing yards) and Foster (rushing yards) topped the league in three of its premier statistical categories. Mayo finds that rewarding.

"That sense of pride always comes out when you see Vols doing good in the NFL," he said. "Eric Berry (rookie safety for the Chiefs) is coming on strong. Of course, Peyton is always going to have a good year. Arian surprised a lot of people this year but, to be honest, he didn't surprise me. I knew he was a great running back in college. He's had a couple of bumps along the road but he's shown a lot of people this year that he can get it done."

Regardless, Mayo is thrilled to see so many of his fellow Vols thriving at the pro level.

"That pride factor gets boosted a little bit," he said. "You're proud to wear that orange & white around the locker room, things like that."

Although life is hectic during the NFL season, Mayo said he keeps in touch with his fellow Vols as much as possible.

"I still talk to Arian, still talk to Inky Johnson all the time. I still talk to Robert Ayers, Ramon Foster, all of those guys," he said. "Those were my roommates in college, so we're always going to be close. They're like my brothers."

Because he cares so much for his alma mater, Mayo continues to follow its football program. He hasn't met first-year coach Derek Dooley but he was pleased with the new head man's rookie season.

"I think he did a good job, as far as using what he had in his first year there," Mayo said. "I felt like we got cheated out of a couple of games. I'm not going to get into that ... you know which games I'm talking about. Hopefully, they can continue the turnaround next year."

Although Mayo arrived at Tennessee with tremendous potential, he credits former Vol defensive coordinator John Chavis for developing him into an NFL-caliber linebacker.

"He ran a pro-style defense, and we had all of the adjustments and all of the different checks and calls," Mayo recalled. "Coach Chavis really prepared me to be an NFL player.

"When I came here (New England) the playbook was a little bit bigger and I saw some of the guys I came in with struggle a little more, as far as scheme was concerned. Coach Chavis does an excellent job of preparing guys, getting them ready for the schemes and the plays and just being a good defensive player. It was all about fundamentals and basics. I owe a lot to Coach Chavis."

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