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Robert Ayers: The Rocky Journey to the Top of Tennessee Football

From a Tennessee Volunteers persective, the 2009 NFL Draft will be noted for two things: the small number of Vols who are considered draft prospects, and the incredible rise of the draft stock of Robert Ayers.  This article is the first part of what has become a two-phase writeup on Ayers (the second will be up tomorrow morning).  Here, I will step through his college football history from high school recruitment through his final year.  In the next article, I will look at his draft prospects, which teams are looking at him, and how the draft may play out for him.

This is a lengthier writeup than I first anticipated, so if you just want a pretty, shiny look at his potential, here's the summary YouTube as provided by our own blogmeister Joel:

And now, let's take a look at the journey of Robert Ayers through Rocky Top.


High School Prospect

Ayers was a graduate of Marlboro County High School in Bennettsville/St. Clio, South Carolina in 2004.  At the time, recruiting sites like Scout and Rivals preferred him as a linebacker due to his 4.5 (!) 40 time and 227-lb weight.  He was fast and had a knack for getting into the backfield in a hurry; in his senior year, nearly a third of his tackles were for loss.  Like most high school standouts, Ayers played on both sides of the line of scrimmage (Rivals videos start with ads):

And as an inside linebacker:
Big.  Fast.  Strong.  You couldn't ask for much more out of a defensive linebacker prospect.

...Well, except for a little maturity

Tennessee:  The Early Years

If there was one red flag about Ayers coming out of high school, it was his academic work ethic:  he didn't have one.  Like so many kids who found their path to popularity through sports, he was content to simply get by in the classroom and enjoy life on the gridiron with little regard to the future.  It's a pattern that would come to haunt Ayers in his first few years at Tennessee.

Reshirting the 2004 season, Ayers had little more to do than enjoy campus life, grow, get stronger, and get faster.  And that extra time - coupled with a lackadaisical attitude toward his studies - came when the Volunteers football team was perhaps at its most bankrupt point in terms of player responsibility and accountability.  Having enjoyed so much success over the last several years (including near-total ownage of the Zookified Gators), the Vols were cocky.  Players like "The Future" Kelley Washington had set the tone in previous years with a "me and the NFL" attitude, and several Vols had come to believe that the orange on their backs was a caste mark indicating their inevitable ascension to the country's premier sports league.  College was a time to lift weights, look good, keep reasonably out of trouble (with a loose definition of "reasonable"), and prep for the millions of dollars coming down the pike.

That was not the environment Ayers needed at the time.  Like so many college kids, time away from home was time to fuel the bad habits that hadn't been eliminated yet.  Without rehashing his off-field record, it suffices to say that his final incident with the police came as an aggravated assault charge in 2005 with Jerod Mayo.)

Yet through it all, Ayers continued to get bigger and stronger.  By the time 2005 rolled around, the red shirt was removed to reveal a legitimate defensive end.  Like so many under Fulmer, Ayers didn't start in his first year as a player, though he made an entrance into 9 games.  The stat line wasn't very impressive in relief duty (6 total tackles, 1 sack for a loss), but he was now working his way onto the field.

Reality Check:  The Humbling of a Beast

For those who don't follow the Vols, that last paragraph's recap of the 2005 season sweeps a tremendous amount of dirt under the rug.  2005 is known in the Big Orange land as TSOWWDNS (The Season Of Which We Do Not Speak):  the year where the preseason 3rd-ranked Volunteers finally fell to their own hubris to end with a 5-6 record - the first losing record ever under Fulmer and the only year they ever lost to Vanderbilt (and that in Neyland Stadium, of all places).  A general lack of team unity and purpose, and a lack of cohesiveness at the quartback position brought humility to the Vols in a big, big way.  Oddly enough, this may very well have been the best thing that could have happened to Ayers.

For all of his neck-hugging and butt-kicking, Fulmer had a hard time getting through to Ayers in the early years.  It's not hard to understand why: when a self-admittedly immature 19-year old has a few coaches telling him to grow up, a whole team of players fueling his playful instincts, and a seemingly inevitable track to the NFL Draft, one of the two messages is at a severe disadvantage.  2005 largely changed all of that; the clean-up of attitudes progressed at a much quicker pace once the team learned they were not invincible.  Slowly and fitfully, character began to re-emerge in the team as players realized that the privileged post-collegiate existence they had come to assume was not at all certain.

Slowly, reality set in and the hunger returned, but it was not all at once.

Fulmer's Final Legacy

Though the off-field issues ended for Ayers in 2005, he still had his academic problems to work through.  The kid just wasn't a good student.  Between his early legal problems and a tendency to flirt with academic ineligibility, Ayers's total off-field record would have been sufficient to keep him riding pine (or perhaps dismissed) from some other teams.  Yet the one character trait of Fulmer that was both his biggest weakness and his biggest strength was his willingness to give players a second chance.  Fulmer knew very well that most of his players had no recourse if they failed to complete college; they would simply return to their previous lives and pick up where they left off.  In the case of an athlete with a hard-luck background, Fulmer often felt that yanking a scholarship was equivalent to condemning the player to a failed life.  Whether this level of compassion is justified is a debate for another day, but it suffices to note that Fulmer would not drop a player that he felt still had a chance to turn his life around.  Sometimes, Fulmer was burned by this approach.

And sometimes, Fulmer was right.

Somewhere in the middle of the uncertainty, the humility, the academic issues, and the inevitable nearing of the end of a college career, Ayers began to realize that racuous living had a very short shelf life.  Slowly (and probably very painfully at times), he began to develop the personal maturity that he had lacked previously.  There is little mention in news articles about the turnaround in these years, but reading articles about Ayers prior to 2006 compared to articles written after 2007 shows a complete turnaround: the timbre changed from writing about a physically gifted kid with little room for sense to a beast of a man who was a team leader and on pace to graduate.

2008:  The Dream Comes Alive

The struggle to turn a life around isn't easy.  Bad habits are very difficult to kill, especially when the temptation to feed those habits is still very much alive.  Change is coupled with frustration when the mind and body are tasked with responsibilities they've never handled before.  Progress is very difficult to notice, and months may go by without any feeling of accomplishment.

But at some point, there may be a moment where all of the effort shows payoff, and the accomplishments of a life changed are instantly recognizable.  That moment came for Robert Ayers in the summer of 2008.  During the marketing runup for the upcoming football season, billboards across Knoxville began to be covered with UT football ads.  Photos of Fulmer, Eric Berry, Jonathan Crompton, and Arian Foster grew to life.  And the most prominent UT football billboard in all of Knoxville - the one located near campus off I-40 just east of the Alcoa highway exit - featured only one person.

Robert Ayers.

The pose (seen here in its reproduction in poster form) marked the defensive end from South Carolina as the image of the new campaign, "Carry the Fight".  Seeing himself on the billboard, Ayers suddenly realized how much the team had come to depend on the one-time classroom slacker.  One of the defensive campaigns for the 2008 year, Ayers turned in one of the brightest performances in all of the SEC during the second - and final - losing campaign of Fulmer's career.

When asked about his off-field issues at the NFL Combine, Ayers was very up-front and honest.  He freely admitted his problems during his college career and took the blame upon himself for all of them.  He also noted that his last legal altercation was in 2005, that he turned an academic train wreck into graduation, and that he was a defensive captain and First-Team All-SEC.  It took some hard lessons along the way, but the St. Clio standout athlete learned to couple his physical gifts with off-field maturity and turn himself into a complete player.  It remains to be seen how much his draft stock is affected by having only started for one season, but whoever does pick him up can safely know that he's a character guy: he's "been there, done that" and has ended that chapter in his life. 

When Robert Ayers is the first Vol taken in the NFL Draft in 2009, he will be the final star in the Fulmer legacy of caring about his players perhaps a bit too much.