In a season overflowing with frustrating story lines for Tennessee football fans, Robert Ayers is a reminder that there are still some positives worth celebrating.
And in a season in which UT seems destined to struggle, Ayers is the unlikely hero.
Who would have imagined the player who admits to rebelling against his coaches would be the one to sacrifice his playing preferences at a moment’s notice?
Who would have dreamed that the young player who head coach Phillip Fulmer said was once tough to be around would be a worthy leader for his teammates to emulate?
Who would have guessed that the student who wasn’t too crazy about going to class would be ready to graduate this December?
Probably not even Ayers, especially if you had asked the surly underclassman who came to UT from Clio, S.C., in 2004.
That was then.
Now, Ayers is one of UT’s greatest success stories in recent years.
Look no farther than Ayers’ performance on and off the field last week in a 29-9 loss to Alabama.
To provide depth at an injury-stricken position, Ayers slid from defensive end to defensive tackle and was a consistent, disruptive force. He registered four tackles, one for a loss and a quarterback hurry.
Following the game, he was asked about his performance and his unselfishness to play a more physical, less celebrated position.
“I just want to win, plain and simple,” Ayers said. “Wherever they put me, that’s where I’m going to play.”
Want more answers that make coaches swell with pride? Here’s a Q and A:
Q: Coaches have repeatedly complimented your play and attitude. From your perspective, how far have you come in the last two or three years?
A: I feel like I’ve come quite a long way from where I was as a freshman. I was real immature.
I still see a lot of things I can improve on, as far as maturing more as a player and as a person.
It’s something that’s just going to take time. I’m all for it, but I definitely feel like I came a long way.
Q: What changed?
A: When I first got here, there were a lot of bumps in the roads for me. I wasn’t too serious about school. I let a lot of things distract me.
Once I sat back and looked at it, there was a lot of motivation for me to do good.
I felt like I was letting my parents down and my family down. I didn’t want to let them down. That was the motivation to get on the right path.
Q: How much did it motivate you that some had started to count you out?
A: I’ve always faced that ever since I was a young kid. There are a lot of people that still think I’m not going to do things.
I still hear, “He’s not going to be a good defensive end. He’s just average.” I hear that from people that are supposed to be my friends and close to the family.
I’m always going to have doubters. I just want to keep trying to prove them wrong. Ultimately, I just want to make my family proud. The people that doubt me, it doesn’t really matter.
Q: Does that sense of proving people wrong carry over to those that doubt your team this season?
A: That’s something coach Fulmer talks about all the time. That’s been the motto of our team, proving people wrong.
If we finish out November 4-0 and go to a bowl game, there will be a lot we could say we accomplished.
We can finish on a good note. That would prove a lot of people wrong.
Q: Last year you led the team in sacks but this year you’ve been better all around. What’s been the key to you being a more complete defensive end in 2008?
A: Last year I was the backup and I put a lot of pressure on myself and I worried about the wrong things. I just was going in there trying to make plays.
Now I kind of understand the defense and I realize that sometimes every play isn’t made for me to make the play.
Sometimes I have to pull a tackle down and let the strongside backer come free, help (linebacker) Nevin (McKenzie) or (safety) Eric Berry or whoever.
Whereas before I just wanted to make every play. I understood it’s not just about me.
Q: How much did that have to do with being a senior?
A: It’s all or nothing once it’s your senior year. Everybody has aspirations of going to the NFL, but that’s not a given. You’ve just got to live out the moment now.
You just try to put everything into it and lay it all on the line. It’s getting rough knowing I just have only four or five more (games left). Just got to keep fighting.
Q: Is it gratifying going back to South Carolina this week knowing that you’re an established, well-respected player on this team?
A: I guess you could say I’m a respected player, but there’s a lot I could get better at. I try not to think of the good. I put the emphasis on the things I can do better.
That’s just how I am, but I’m happy to be respected.
Q: What would Robert Ayers, the underclassman, have said if UT’s coaches said they wanted to slide you to defensive tackle as they did last week?
A: When I first moved to defensive end (from linebacker as a freshman), I didn’t really like it. I kind of rebelled against (defensive ends) coach (Steve) Caldwell. He’ll tell you the same thing.
I was thinking, “I didn’t come here to play defensive end. I came to play linebacker.” It (that attitude) hurt me in the long run.
I probably would have said the same thing again, probably would have been real mad, like, “Why do you all keep moving me so much?”