The secondary features a couple of big-play specialists in strong safety Eric Berry and free safety Demetrice Morley. Berry recorded 14 big plays as a true freshman last fall to share the team lead. Morley registered 18 big plays in 2006, then sat out '07 due to academic deficiencies.
Tennessee also has a big-play guy at linebacker. Rico McCoy recorded 4.5 tackles for loss, 5 pass breakups, an interception and a quarterback hurry as a sophomore last fall.
The big-play specialist up front is senior end Robert Ayers, who tied Berry for the team lead a year ago with 14. And he appears to be picking up in 2008 where he left off in '07.
On the fourth snap of last Saturday's full-scale scrimmage, Ayers stripped Montario Hardesty of the ball, then recovered it himself. That produced two big plays on a single snap – a fumble forced AND a fumble recovered.
Six plays later Ayers was at it again. He hit Jonathan Crompton just as the No. 1 quarterback was unloading a pass. A quick whistle gave Ayers credit for a sack but his hit would've been even bigger without the quick whistle, since Crompton's hurried pass wound up being intercepted by Morley.
Despite recording three big plays in the scrimmage's first 10 snaps, however, Ayers shrugged off his sterling start.
“The offense came out and they were moving the ball on us a little bit in the beginning,” he said matter of factly. “I was just got lucky and stripped the ball out a little bit.”
Ayers seems to get “lucky” a lot, based on the fact he shared the team lead in big plays last fall, even though he was stuck behind seniors Xavier Mitchell and Antonio Reynolds and didn't start a single game.
“I just try to be a leader,” Ayers explained. “If I play hard, play assignments first and hustle to the ball, I feel like big plays will happen. Chief (defensive coordinator John Chavis) does a good job of getting us in great position to make plays, so I just try to hustle and be around the ball. Hopefully, big plays will happen.”
Ayers wasn't the only Vol making big plays last Saturday. Linebacker Nevin McKenzie recorded two sacks. Tackle Donald Langley registered two minus-yardage stops. Tackle Victor Thomas had a tackle for loss and a sack. Cornerback DeAngelo Willingham registered a minus-yardage stop and two pass breakups. Linebacker Ellix Wilson recorded a minus-yardage tackle, as well.
Best of all, Tennessee's defense caused a couple of drive-killing turnovers – Ayers forcing and recovering a fumble, Morley recording two interceptions (although one was negated by the quick whistle).
“We pride ourselves on making turnovers,” Ayers said, “and I think we did a good job of that.”
At 6-3 and 270 pounds, Ayers is big enough to play some tackle in a pinch. That pinch may be at hand, since Tennessee's depth at tackle has been eroded by junior Chase Nelson's season-ending knee injury. Ayers figures the Vols have plenty of tackles capable of filling that void, however.
“Chase is a guy Coach was counting on contributing,” the senior end noted. “He knows we're going to play for him, we're going to support him. That just means somebody else has to step up – like Langley or Andre Mathis. Now those guys have to step up more than before because that's one person we were counting on.”