With top reserve Walter Fisher slowed by a toe injury, the Vols are down to two dependable tackles – starters Demonte Bolden and Dan Williams. That leaves defensive coordinator John Chavis no choice but to move Ayers inside and hope No. 4 tackle Victor Thomas can upgrade his play a bit.
As Chavis noted: "We will be prepared to do both – move Robert inside and get Victor some more work also."
Defensive tackles coach Dan Brooks agrees.
"Robert Ayers has already played in there some," Brooks noted. "He did that last year and a little bit this year. He probably knows the most, as far as what to do, and physically could handle it the best."
At 6-3 and 275 pounds, Ayers is the only Tennessee end big enough and versatile enough to slip inside and play tackle. That makes him one valuable Vol.
"The thing that's neat about Robert is the growth he's had since he's been at the University of Tennessee," Chavis said. "The first year was rocky. I say that to compliment Robert because he's matured as a person, matured as a football player. When you see those kind of things happen, you know you're doing the right thing. That's the way young people should benefit from this game."
Both Chavis and Brooks are hopeful Fisher can play at least a few snaps this week. Even if he can, UT will need more help from Victor Thomas, who played reasonably well last weekend at Georgia.
"Victor did some good things and he's done some good things in practice," Brooks said. "He's playing faster and playing with good pad level. He's doing some things with his shoulders squared better ... things you grow up and learn to do when you move in there."
"Andre Mathis had done some good things, then he hurt his back."
Vol coaches say redshirt freshman Donald Langley, who has been distracted by some health problems in his family, is not yet ready to contribute at tackle.
Despite limited depth at tackle, Tennessee has been pretty stout against the run. The Vols rank No. 20 nationally in rushing defense, allowing 100.2 yards per game. That's quite an improvement over 2007, when UT allowed 164.6 rushing yards per game.
"We played with a bunch of young guys last year and we didn't tackle well," Chavis recalled. "We're tackling good right now – not great, but good. We've got guys in good position. They understand leverage and they understand the scheme. That's been good. We've got some good players."
Still, Tennessee's defense is coming off its worst performance of the season. It allowed Georgia to pile up 29 first downs, 148 rushing yards, 458 total yards. The Dawgs also converted 9 of 17 third-down plays and kept the ball for 42:04. Naturally, that left a bitter taste in Chavis' mouth.
"When you don't play well, it kind of lingers," he said. "We need to get rid of that lingering feeling. We need to go play well as a football team and get that feel-good thing going on again.
"This football team needs that."