"I've learned how to become a leader without yelling at people," Ayers said. "I've tried to lead by example. That's something I had to learn, and it took awhile for me to get it in my head: Not everybody has to yell to be a leader. If you just come in and work, guys see that.
"That's helped me a long way – being looked at as a guy that's a hard worker."
Sophomore Eric Berry looms as the clearcut leader of the Vol secondary and junior Rico McCoy clearly is the unquestioned lead dog for the linebacker corps. The leadership situation is a little muddled on the D-line, however. Tackles Demonte Bolden and Dan Williams are returning starters but neither is particularly outspoken. Nor is junior Wes Brown, who projects to start at the other end spot. That leaves Ayers as the most likely leader of the line. He believes he is now ready to assume that role.
"It was a maturing process," he said. "Everybody goes through it. Some guys come in here mature, like Eric Berry. Some guys take a little longer, like myself."
Admittedly a bit of a hot-head when he joined the Big Orange, Ayers struggled with hard coaching and struggled even more when an injury forced him to redshirt as a true freshman in 2004. The inactivity gave him an extra year to mature, however, and those additional 12 months appear to be paying dividends.
"When I first got here, I was rebellious and I was getting injured," he recalled. "I didn't know how to handle those things, so I wasn't willing to feed into the program.
"As I got older I started to feed into the program and I started maturing a lot more. I've grown a lot. I've accepted coaching a lot more. Now I'm molding into a leader."
In addition to developing into a leader, the 6-3, 270-pounder could develop into an All-SEC player. He appears to be on the verge after a superior junior season. Despite playing a backup role at end, he led the 2007 Vols in both big plays (14) and sacks (4). He also recorded 12 tackles for loss, nearly matching the combined total of first-team ends Xavier Mitchell (7.0) and Antonio Reynolds (5.5).
With Mitchell and Reynolds now competing for NFL jobs, Tennessee is counting on Ayers to make even more impact in 2008. He's eager to take on that challenge.
"I know I've worked hard, and that working hard is going to make me play better," he said. "Being mature and being confident in myself is going to make me a better player."
Maturity and confidence also will make him a better leader. And, with four new starters in the front seven, Tennessee's defense needs all of the veteran leadership it can muster.
"We (veteran players) understand that: When your time comes, you have to be a leader," Ayers said. "I just want to play hard, show the younger guys the ropes, teach them how to do things.
"If I get the younger guys to follow, I think we'll be pretty good."