Difficult defender

Tennessee defensive end Robert Ayers has always been difficult. Early in his career he was difficult to coach. Lately, he's difficult to block.

Naturally, Vol coaches like him a lot better lately.

"Robert is entirely different," head coach Phillip Fulmer said this week. "Robert didn't really understand (early in his career) how hard it is to play in this league. He didn't want to be coached very much. He already had all the answers when he was a freshman. He has done a 180."

Ayers has changed on the field, as well as off the field. After recording just 3.5 tackles for loss in the first five games he has registered 5.5 in the past three games. He recorded an interception in Game 6 at Georgia, recorded a sack in Game 7 vs. Mississippi State and recorded a quarterback hurry in Game 8 vs. Alabama.

"He's playing like a demon right now," defensive ends coach Steve Caldwell noted. "He's giving it all he's got. He and I had a talk three weeks ago and he took it to heart. Starting with the Georgia game he played to the bitter end. The same thing last Saturday (vs. Alabama)."

So, what was the gist of that talk?

"Robert was playing well but I still thought he had another level," Caldwell explained. "I think after he looked at it (on film), he thought he had another level, too. He was playing very well but he's playing so hard right now from Play 1 to the end. He doesn't want to come off the field. He was off the field three snaps Saturday. Out of 63 snaps, he played 60 of them, either inside (tackle) or out (end).

I knew just from practice, especially the Georgia game, 'He's stepped up now.'

Ayers always had great talent; he just didn't have great character. Now that he has matured, he is pretty much the total package.

"He is an unbelievable leader – both vocal and by example," Fulmer said. "He's very unselfish. He's really pushed himself from being a guy you really didn't like being around very much to one of those guys you really enjoy being around. He's very unselfish, very team oriented. He's helped himself a lot in a lot of ways.

"He'll have his degree at the end of this semester. I'd say there's nobody here who thought he'd have his degree, period. He's turned into quite the conscientious student."

Defensive coordinator John Chavis spent three frustrating years waiting for Ayers to grow up as a person and as a football player. The wait is paying dividends this fall.

"Robert's done a good job," Chavis said. "Robert is an example of a young man who, through this program, has matured tremendously. He's committed to being the best player he can be. He's committed to being the best student he can be.

"Robert's obviously given us good play outside and when we've needed him inside he's gone in and done a tremendous job for us."

A native of Clio, S.C., Ayers should be at his best this weekend when he returns to his home state to face the South Carolina Gamecocks.

"This will be a big one for him this week," Caldwell said. "I don't believe you could hold him back this week. He's going back home, so it'll be a lot of fun for him."

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