"Right now I don't feel I'm living up to my potential," said Ayers, a sophomore from Clio, S.C. "It's good to have potential but you've got to perform, and that's what I've got to do."
Asked what he must do to live up to his potential, Ayers replied: "I just need to work real hard, listen to my coaches and get better every day. There's a lot of competition at this position."
The competition was intensified by the departure of Haralson and Hall. Knowing two starting jobs were open is bringing out the best in the potential replacements.
"Oh, yeah," Ayers conceded. "When a spot opens, everybody wants to jump in. I'm trying to take my chance and come out as a starter. If not, I'll play whatever role the coaches ask me to."
Ayers was signed as a linebacker prospect three years ago but quickly grew into a defensive end. Although injuries forced him to redshirt in 2004 and play sparingly in 2005, he has shown flashes of brilliance. He just needs to rely more on fundamentals and less on his remarkable physical gifts.
"I can make up for a lot of mistakes in technique with my speed and quickness," he said. "That's the best thing I've got going."
It's also the worst thing he's got going for him. Ayers sometimes gets careless in his mental approach because he's so confident he'll bail himself out with his physical skills.
"I just need to play my technique and not take chances," he admitted. "I do that a lot – take a chance and go outside, instead of inside. When I play my technique, I can stop the run as good as any defensive end in the country."
Ayers believes Tennessee's defensive end corps can be as good as any in the country, too, despite the loss of both starters from last fall.
"A lot of people don't know it but Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds played 30 snaps a game last year," he noted. "And Turk McBride started some games as a sophomore. I'm the only guy that's not played much."
He hopes to rectify that situation by playing an awful lot this fall. Odds are, he'll succeed.
"I always feel I can get better," he said. "I'm OK right now but I'm nowhere near what I want to be."