Ayers ready to rumble

He was one of the most impressive performers in Tennessee's preseason drills, yet he didn't play in the first two football games. He's almost certain to see action Saturday night in Game 3 at Baton Rouge, however.

Robert Ayers missed the Vols' first two games on suspension for his participation in a fight at the University Center last winter. Now that he's served his penalty, he should be joining the defensive end rotation for this weekend's game against No. 3 LSU.

Ayers came to Tennessee as a 6-3, 230-pound linebacker from Clio, S.C. Sidelined by shoulder surgery, he redshirted last fall and grew into a 251-pound defensive end. He also grew into one of UT's most impressive young defenders, exhibiting quickness in the pass rush and toughness in run support. If not for his suspension he probably would've seen significant action in Games 1 and 2.

Ayers recently admitted the off-field incident that got him suspended was inexcusable but suggested he has matured because of it.

"I was stressed out from having shoulder surgery, and things that relate to me growing up and stuff," he said. " I'm more mature now and doing better in school. I've changed a lot."

The switch from linebacker to defensive end is a significant one but Ayers says he's happy to play anywhere the coaches put him. And he's happy to wait his turn for a chance to start.

"Whatever helps the team," he said. "I don't set too many personal goals. My goal is to win the national championship every year. That's the reason I came to Tennessee. If there's a better guy in front of me, I don't mind as long as we're winning."

Right now there are two "better guys" in front of him – seniors Parys Haralson and Jason Hall. Both are far more experienced and far more comfortable with UT's defensive scheme. Ayers is closing the gap on them, however, partly because they're teaching him valuable lessons.

"Technique, pad leverage, shedding blocks are things I learn every day watching the older guys like Parys and Jason Hall." He said. "I learn from other players and the coaches. That's the big difference between the way I was in the spring and now. I'm learning. I'm looking to Parys and the older guys to make me a better player."

Ayers is one of Tennessee's hardest-working players. He clearly is looking to improve each time he takes the field.

"Every time I put the pads on is a chance to get better, instead of just loafing around," he said. "I try to go hard every play, and that's what I do. I just want to help the team any way I can, whether it's on defense or special teams."

After missing all of the 2004 season due to injury and most of spring practice due to the suspension, Ayers was thrilled when he finally got back on the practice field in August.

"It's kind of fun to get back out there with the team," he said. "I love this team."

And Vol staffers love Ayers' infectious enthusiasm. So what must he do to convince them he's ready for significant playing time?

"Just listen to the coaches and do everything they ask me to do. That's all I can do," he said. "They're going to play the best man, whether it's me, Antonio Reynolds or Jason Hall. The best man will play, and I'll still be happy as long as we're winning."

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