"I've made some progress but I didn't reach the goals I set for myself," Ayers said recently. "But I'll take team goals over personal goals anytime. Besides, we've got one more game, so maybe I can come out and play well against Penn State."
Asked what his personal goals were, Ayers grinned sheepishly and replied: "I'd rather not say."
A converted linebacker, he now packs 255 pounds on his 6-3 frame. He also packs a wallop when he hits people. Still, he spent the first 10 games of 2006 backing up Antonio Reynolds. With Reynolds injured, Ayers started Game 11 vs. Vanderbilt and Game 12 against Kentucky, recording 2 tackles each time.
Although he showed occasional flashes of brilliance during the regular season, Robert Ayers is too inconsistent to suit Tennessee's coaches. That's why he will open Monday's Outback Bowl Game on the bench while Reynolds and fellow junior Xavier Mitchell start at the end spots.
"Xavier and Antonio played a lot last season," Ayers said, referring to 2005. "This was my first time getting significant playing time. I only played in four or five games last year, so I had to step into a very different role this year. I had to take it and grow and learn on the run with it."
Because he played linebacker in high school, Ayers arrived at Tennessee as an accomplished run stopper. He was lacking in pass-rush techniques, however. Although he's making strides in that area, he still has a ways to go.
Asked what makes a good pass rusher, he replied: "A lot of things. You try to be very quick but there's no one key. You've just got to have it in you."
If Ayers has it in him, he'll need to bring it out Monday against Penn State. The Nittany Lions are viewed as a run-oriented team, but quarterback Anthony Morelli actually threw 50 more passes this season (361) than Tennessee counterpart Erik Ainge (311).
Still, Ayers says the Vols are more concerned with Penn State's ground game than the Nittany Lions' air attack.
"They feed off the run, then try to hit you with play-action passes," he said. "If you stop the run, you stop their whole offense.
"They've got some big, strong linemen – the Big Ten is known for that – but if we stop the run we feel like we can control the game."