The fact he led Tennessee in big plays last season is a pretty remarkable accomplishment, considering that he didn't start a game.

Perhaps that's a testament to Robert Ayers. Perhaps it's an indictment of the 2007 Vol defense. Perhaps it's a little bit of both.

Regardless, the 6-3, 270-pounder from Clio, S.C., enters his senior season as the heir-apparent to Jerod Mayo as the premier difference-maker in Tennessee's front seven.

Mayo, the middle linebacker who led the entire SEC with 140 tackles last fall, elected to bypass his senior year and jump to the NFL. Also gone from last year's front seven are first-team ends Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds, along with strongside linebacker Ryan Karl.

Given this level of attrition, Tennessee desperately needs a big year from Ayers, who has tantalized Vol coaches and fans alike for three years with his mind-boggling potential. He began to scratch that potential last year, rallying down the stretch to lead the Vols in big plays (14), tackles for loss (12) and sacks (4).

Incredibly, Ayers just missed recording as many tackles for loss in a reserve capacity (12) as last year's starting ends – Mitchell (7) and Reynolds (5.5) – recorded as a tandem.

Picking up where he left off at the end of last season, Ayers is still exhibiting a knack for being in the middle of the action this spring.

"Robert's doing OK," head coach Phillip Fulmer said this week. "He's making a lot of plays. He's just got to get to where he doesn't give up a play by being out of gap or out of his rush lane."

Because Tennessee's coaches are dissatisfied with the depth at defensive tackle, Ayers is getting some work at that position, as well. Odds are he'll spend 2008 filling a role similar to that of former Vol Turk McBride - playing end on rushing downs and moving inside on passing downs.

Wherever he lines up, Ayers is being counted on to provide guidance, as well as big plays. So far, he appears to be answering that call.

"He's being a good leader, a good leader by example," Fulmer said. "I appreciate his vocalness. I just want it to be in the right way ... by encouraging."

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