NASHVILLE, Tenn. — When
Ayers returned to Los Angeles in the offseason and incorporated Taekwondo and mixed martial arts workouts into his training with Jay Glazer. Although it might seem quite different, Ayers isn’t the only player who’s turned to the martial arts training and discovered benefits.
Ayers frequently faced Jaguars tight end Marcedes Lewis in the sessions. Despite playing for AFC South rival teams, Ayers and Lewis are friends. Their college football careers did not overlap at UCLA, but they connected when Lewis revisited campus and wound up training at the same facility where Ayers was preparing for the 2011 NFL Draft. Ayers said Lewis, a seven–year pro, gave him very helpful information on what tight ends try to do against linebackers.
“Since you had an actual tight end there, he kind of helped me, gave us the insight on what works against tight ends and what doesn’t work and just ways I can beat tight ends,” Ayers said. “Being in the atmosphere where I’m able to actually practice on someone and get insight from a tight end was a huge advantage. I pretty much worked on the things that he told me that work best.”
Ayers will finish this season with more tackles, sacks, quarterback hits, tackles for loss and passes defensed than his rookie campaign. Ayers also recorded his first career interception this season in a win at Miami.
The improvements have been impressive since they built on his rookie season in which he had 88 tackles, two sacks, seven quarterback hits and three tackles for loss in becoming the Titans’ first defensive rookie to start all 16 games since Tank Williams in 2002.
“He was one of our most improved guys in the offseason, and he followed that up by starting the season pretty much on fire,” Titans linebackers coach Frank Bush said. “He did all the things we asked him to do and played in about four or five different packages and was able to handle it.”
Ayers has worn one helmet but many hats this season. He’s set the edge on rushing plays to keep containment, he’s dropped into coverage, and he’s rushed opposing passers as a defensive end or on linebacker blitzes.
“We’re trying to take advantage of all the things that he’s capable of doing, as far as playing linebacker and being part of our nickel package and then also lining him up and letting him rush the quarterback,” Bush said. “We’ve got several different things that we try to do with him because the kid is talented and he can go make plays.”
Bush said coaches initially threw a considerable amount on Ayers’ plate so they could fully evaluate his best strengths and how he could provide the most significant impact.
“He handled most of it for the most part,” Bush said, “and we’re smart enough to say, ‘OK, these are the things that he’s really starting to excel in,’ so we backed off in some areas and kept pushing in other areas, and he’s responded. He’s done a good job, and we know at any moment he can make a play for us.”
As the season progressed, Ayers’ role changed, especially on third down. Earlier this season Ayers shifted from strongside or “Sam” linebacker to weakside or “Will” linebacker when the Titans substituted their nickel package, but coaches have been able to put rookie
“Zach Brown came along strong and is improving every week,” Ayers said. “That’s enabled me to go get in the rotation with the defensive ends. In the base defense, I’m still the Sam linebacker, standing up and doing all the things that linebackers do, but when it’s time to rush the quarterback on third downs, they’ve got me in the rotation. It’s a lot but once you get the practice in and keep practicing, you kind of get used to it.”
Ayers said his shift into that role has been made smoother by the fact that he performed similar duties at UCLA. Ayers said the martial arts training has benefitted his game at linebacker and as a pass rusher.
“(Glazer) made it more relevant to football,” Ayers said, “so just using physical hands, getting the tight end’s hands off you but doing it in an aggressive, physical way, and once you get a lot of repetition at it, it becomes natural and you just keep doing it and it just really helps.”
The training, however, didn’t prepare Ayers for what is perhaps his most important role. The 23-year-old became a father of twin daughters, Payton and Cassidy, five months ago. He said it’s been a “great experience.”
“It’s a lot for a first-time parent to have two babies in the house at once, but as the months go on, it becomes easier, and it’s a good feeling, especially having two young girls that can grow with each other,” Ayers said. “It’s been a great experience to have them around the house and watch them grow every day and learn new things every day. It’s probably been one of the best experiences I’ll have. I have no complaints, you know, I love it.”
Bush said he’s pleased with the way Ayers leads by example, by his work ethic and determination.
“I think more than anything, he’s starting to understand that even though he’s not a team captain per se,” Bush said, “they do look at him as somewhat of a leader in the sense that they expect him to make plays when he’s out there and he steps up and tries to get that done.”
“He hasn’t missed a practice, he works at it even on days he doesn’t feel up to par — he may have a nick here or there, but he somehow gets out here and practices,” Bush continued, “and once he’s out here, he works and I don’t think anybody questions his work ethic, and I think that’s part of his leadership.”