Robert Ayers is known as one of Tennessee's most physically intimidating defenders, a ferocious hitter when the chance arises.
But the 6-foot-3, 270-pound senior defensive end tries not to dwell on Saturday's season- and career-finale against Kentucky (6-5, 2-5). Kickoff inside Neyland Stadium is 6:30 p.m. (ESPN2)
"I try not to think about it; I know it's going to be weird. It's my last time playing for the University of Tennessee, and I know it's going to be real emotional for a lot of guys," said the SEC's tackles-for-loss leader with 14.5. " Just try not to think about it pretty much.
"It's felt like it's flown by, but at the same time I've experienced a lot and it's made me better as a man. It's flown by but I've had a lot of great experiences here and I've really enjoyed my time at Tennessee."
Ayers recently was lifted up as an example by departing coach Phillip Fulmer about what is right in college athletics and the differences that can made in athletes' lives.
"It means a lot to me because the fact that a guy like coach Fulmer is one of the people I can give the most credit to. He's one of the reasons why I've matured the way I have and became the person I am now," Ayers said. "Without a guy like coach Fulmer and his staff, I wouldn't be who I am. You learn a lot because of the coaches and this staff. I credit a lot of my maturity to them."
Ayers has been adamant in his support for Fulmer, and though both will make their final appearances this weekend in their respective roles for the Vols, the Clio, S.C., defensive end can't help but wish Fulmer would be back next year.
"I wish he was still coming back, even though this is my last game. He's a great coach, and I think he should still be the coach at the University of Tennessee," said Ayers, who will have 12-16 family members at this week's game. "When you mention the name coach Fulmer, the University of Tennessee comes right after it. It's going to be kind of weird not seeing him holding those headphones on the sidelines any more. Coach Fulmer's a great guy, and he has a lot of great years ahead of him."
NFL on their mind?
Defensive tackle Dan Williams has 45 tackles, 8.5 for minus yards, 1.5 sacks and seven pass deflections. Saturday he will conclude the regular season and some wonder if not his Tennessee career. Williams said he has not given the NFL much thought through this trying year, but certainly will explore his options next month.
"We are not going to a bowl game and we will a lot of time in December. I will do what every junior does. I will see what kind of grade I get back and make a decision from there."
Williams, who calls Fulmer a father figure, said the fact that he would be playing for a new coaching staff next year it something to think about but in the end won't be make the decision for him.
"It could factor into it, but at the same time I believe that any new coach is going to want to win," Williams said. "We have some good players returning and we have a good chance to be a winning team next year. It might factor in there a little bit, but not much."
Junior linebacker Rico McCoy offered similar sentiments.
"After this last one, I guess it's all about what I'm going to do when the season's over," McCoy said as to his initial offseason focus.
The Washington, D.C., native and 2007 All-SEC pick expects several factors to influence his decision.
"There's a lot to think about, a lot to think about. Playing for new coaches, probably having a different style of defense. Me having to learn a new scheme, that has something to do with it," he said. "There's just a lot to think about. And the grade, my projected round of getting drafted. There's a bunch of stuff to think about."
Morley said he would submit his paperwork to get an NFL evaluation "sometime soon."
Do your job
Williams said the returning players are all wondering and chatting about who the next guy is. Tight end Luke Stocker said that who is going to be their future coach is on the minds of everyone. Dan Williams said everyone's eyes are glued to the television, radio, and the internet looking for20news.
"You want to listen to it," Williams said. "You want to know who is going to be the next head man. We are going home for Christmas break and we will probably find out when everyone else finds out. We do listen and we watch ESPN everyday to see if Mike Hamilton has made a decision. Me and my teammates are playing the waiting game to see who the next coach is."
While they play that waiting game, Williams said his message to his teammates has been to do your job by going to class and handling things the right way.
"It's very important. You don't want to ruin your own life," Williams offered. "I call the younger players everyday and make sure they are going to class and to their tutoring appointments. I try to set the example. You don't want to hurt yourself in the end."
Eric Berry said some sense of normalcy has returned for the time being.
"It was kind of difficult to block out in the beginning after it first happened, but right now it just feels like he's going to be back next year," Berry said of Fulmer. "We haven't really discussed it, but we know whoever comes in has quite some shoes to fill."
Berry further echoed Williams' sentiments, saying the players have little insight into the process.
"The past few weeks, we didn't know that (Fulmer's firing) was going to happen. That caught us totally off guard. A lot of people ask us, like we're sitting down with some guy and making a business decision," said the Thorpe Award finalist. "But we're not. We're just out here playing."
Not on my watch
For Stocker, Saturday night has plenty of importance as the Vols look to extend a 23 game winning streak over his home state school. The fact that Stocker turned down the Wildcats to be a Vol, means he and his teammates must get the job done.
"I hear about it all the time," Stocker said. "Some of family are UK fans and even last year with it going to overtime they talked smack about it just because it was a close game. I can't imagine it would be like if we lose."
Never considered leaving
While Berry has professed an intense loyalty to Fulmer, the uber-talented sophomore from Fairburn, Ga., also indicated he never felt inclined to leave Tennessee, where his father James was a team captain under Johnny Majors, in the wake of Fulmer's exit.
"I haven't considered transferring at all," said Berry, who has 12 career interceptions 25 games. "I'm a loyal guy. I'm loyal to my teammates. I'm loyal to my university. Me transferring would be a big slap in the face to my teammates, just turning my back on them and telling them I'm going somewhere else just because coach Fulmer isn't here. I figure we need to carry out the legacy and keep everything going."
Through staying, Berry also wants to be a leader for his teammates.
"The hardest thing is trying to get everybody to rally behind whoever does come in here," he said. "It's easy to say, 'I'm not playing for him.' A lot o f guys just miss coach Fulmer and want to play for him. But we're going to have to come together as a family and get things straight."
Excited about 2009
With a miserable 2008 campaign almost behind him, Brandon Warren maintains an upbeat outlook for his future as a Tennessee Vol.
"I'm looking forward to the new coaches coming in and the new opportunity that's going to be opening up," said Warren, a sophomore from nearby Alcoa.
How closely does Warren follow news of UT's search?
"I just try to stay as far away from it as possible. Even when I go home people ask me and stuff, I don't know," he said. "It's not up to me. I just hope that we get the right guy in."
Not his focus
Chris Walker said he'd heard from his mom about message board speculation that he might leave Tennessee. Walker indicated the thought hasn't been on his mind.
"Right now, I'm just trying to focus on getting coach Fulmer out here with a win and on a good note, and I'm focused on getting these seniors out here on a good note. That's all I'm focused on right now," said the personable Walker, who's enjoyed something of a breakout sophomore campaign this season with three tackles for losses, two quarterback sacks and two forced fumbles.
Particularly, Walker is focused on sending UT's senior class out on top.
"It's really important to me because I remember my junior, we lost in the state championship and I felt so bad for the seniors," he said. "And I don't want that feeling for them again. I'm going to play my hardest for them."
As for how he'll spend his Thanksgiving? Walker has a unique method to maximize his eating opportunities.
"I do a little thing that me and (defensive back) Anthony Anderson call "Thanks-hopping." We just go from house to house eating food and we might eat a little bit, take a nap," Walker said. "Then sit down for a bit and eat some more. Then go to the next house and do the same thing.
"I know I'm hitting Mitch's house (team chaplain James 'Mitch' Mitchell), I'm hitting Mitch's house last, and I'm going to Anthony's grandmother's house."
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