Ready To Strike: UCLA's Ayers An Impressive Athlete

by Ryan Eshoff

It may be about time that NCAA football borrows a term from its basketball brethren, with maybe a slight alteration.

Call it an "Ayer-ball," and if you've watched enough UCLA football over the last couple seasons you'd probably recognize it. The opposing quarterback thinks he can get the ball over the defense and to a receiver waiting downfield, but UCLA junior linebacker Akeem Ayers has other ideas.

A unique blend of instincts, athleticism and hand-eye coordination incorporated into a 6-foot-4-inch, 255-pound frame, Ayers leads the Bruins in interceptions and fumble recoveries, and is second in pass breakups.

"Some of the plays that happen, you don't have time to think about what to do," Ayers said. "Your body just takes over, and kind of makes a play for you."

Ayers' body has been busy the last two seasons. The numbers he's put up this season should come as no surprise after the season he had in 2009, when his three touchdowns ranked fourth on the team.

Perhaps the defining play of Ayers' career came in last season's matchup with Oregon, whom UCLA faces Thursday. Ducks quarterback Nate Costa dropped back deep into his own end zone, and tried to lob a pass over the blitzing Ayers. But the UCLA linebacker did his usual routine, leaping high into the air to snag the ball before landing on his tiptoes at the back of the end zone for a touchdown. A classic Ayer-ball.

"Just a quick play really," Ayers said. "My first instinct was to just bat that ball down, and it ended up in my hand, so I just tried to stay in the end zone. I was surprised that I did it."

These days, Ayers isn't surprising anybody, himself included. ESPN NFL Draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. ranked the junior at No. 12 on his latest "Big Board," calling him a "budding star" and a "physical specimen with ideal size."

"Akeem has done a great job this year of making big plays," said UCLA middle linebacker Patrick Larimore, who has played alongside Ayers all season when the latter lines up at outside linebacker.

Comments like Kiper's have incited all kinds of rumors and hearsay. Will Ayers stick around for his senior season or will he depart for what will surely be an early round NFL draft? The man himself is revealing nothing, and he doesn't want to be thinking about such things.

"I'm focusing on what I have to do now, on the small things to better myself as a football player," Ayers said. "When my time comes, then I'll worry about that. If I just take care of what I need to do now, when the time comes I'll be in good shape."

It's not unusual for elite college football players to have multi-sport backgrounds, but while Ayers played basketball and football later in his youth, he got his start on the baseball diamond. In fact, that may be the sport that is contributing the most to his recent success.

"Definitely," Ayers said emphatically when asked if playing baseball had an impact on his gridiron game. "Especially when catching the ball. And I was a pretty good batter, so you need to have hand-eye coordination. With catching the football you have to look that thing in, so baseball definitely helps."

That's a partial explanation for Ayers' unique skill-set: a childhood spent hitting and throwing a baseball with pinpoint precision can surely contribute to the development of a big-play-in-waiting. Ayers is a dynamic force that has lined up not only at linebacker, but also along the defensive line.

"Playing defensive end is like second nature," said Ayers, who played the position all through high school before switching to linebacker his senior year. "It gives me a lot of time to get after the quarterback. It definitely allows me to make more plays."

The hand-eye coordination refined by years of baseball, the catching skills developed from playing occasional tight end and receiver in high school, all meshed with a 36-inch vertical leap boosted by a number of seasons on the basketball court - ladies and gentlemen, Akeem Ayers.

But wait, we haven't gotten to the newest sport on his list; when he isn't knocking down opposing quarterbacks, Ayers prefers a different kind of demolition.

"I find myself bowling a lot," he said. "I just recently started going, so I'm just getting comfortable with it. It's something I enjoy doing."

Along with junior safety Rahim Moore, Ayers is one of the unquestioned leaders of a youthful yet talented UCLA defense, a defense that has had its ups and downs. With so much inexperience, the hope is that the activity of guys like Ayers and Moore rubs off on the younger Bruins.

"I need to step up more and make plays early in the game," Ayers said. "That way I make guys want to make plays for themselves, and kind of get a spark started for our defense."

Akeem Ayers promising to make more plays is probably the last thing that opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks want to hear. The Oregon interception, the fumble return for a touchdown against Arizona State last season, an acrobatic interception against Houston earlier this season - the image of Ayers in the minds of his opponents is, given his penchant for baseball and bowling, a fitting one: ready to strike.

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