UT seeks more Ayers pressure

Tennessee football fans have heard for two-plus years how good he could be. Now they're finally getting to see for themselves.

Junior defensive end Robert Ayers may have produced his much-anticipated breakout performance 11 days ago in Game 4 vs. Arkansas State. His 6 total tackles included 5 solos, 2 sacks and another tackle for loss.

Although he backs up senior Antonio Reynolds at right end, the 6-3, 260-pound Ayers leads Tennessee in both sacks (3) and tackles for loss (7). The runnerup in tackles for loss has 3. Perhaps, at long last, Ayers is turning potential into production.

"Robert is one of those guys that, even though it's a little late coming, you're really glad to see it happen for him," head coach Phillip Fulmer said. "He has played exceptionally well, mostly because his practice habits have improved."

Several Tennessee defenders have made progress since the Vols' 59-20 humiliation at Florida in Game 3 but none has come farther than Ayers. That's why he may start this Saturday against Georgia.

"Probably the guy that is most pleasing is Robert Ayers," Fulmer said. "He and Antonio Reynolds are locked into a battle where whoever practices the best during the week will start the game."

Though pleased that he recorded a pair of sacks vs. Arkansas State, Ayers says they were more a product of the score than any individual brilliance on his part.

"We did a better job of stopping the run against Arkansas State in the beginning of the game, so it opened up opportunities to rush the passer," he said. "We were up (on the scoreboard) and, when you're up, the other team has to throw the ball a little more. That helps. If we can get up on Georgia I think we'll be successful."

Stopping the run will be a lot tougher against Georgia than it was against Arkansas State. The Dawgs have two quality tailbacks who will test a group of Vol defenders who have been roasted this fall by their own fan base.

"I worked hard all summer with these guys, and I'm very confident in what they can do," Ayers said. "I hope they feel the same way about me. We just have to come out and play our game.

"Stopping the run is a mentality," he added. "You've got to come out and KNOW you're going to stop the run. You can't think of nothing else. That's what we plan on doing this Saturday."

Although Tennessee lost handily to both quality teams it has played, Ayers insists the Vols are not down on themselves.

"We've played two top-six teams," he said. "Cal's No. 3 and Florida was No. 4 (before losing last weekend). We lost to those two teams but we feel confident. I don't think nobody else has played a hard schedule like that."

Tennessee's defensive staff is taking a lot of criticism for the poor showings against California and Florida. Ayers believes that criticism is unfounded.

"We've got great coaches, and they're going to put us in the right positions," he said. "It's up to the players to execute. I don't know what the future holds but if we just practice hard every day and bring the right mentality I think we'll be all right."

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