Ayers aims to top college teammate with big rookie season

Monday, August 1, 2011 at 10:26pm

No one can say for sure just how good an NFL player Akeem Ayers will be. After all, the Tennessee Titans second-round draft pick has yet to play a game — regular season, preseason or otherwise.

It’s certain, though, that his rookie year will be more productive than Alterraun Verner’s. At least that’s the way Verner sees it.

“I expect him to top it, twist it over, sit on it,” Verner said. “He’s going to shatter [my performnce]. He’s an awesome player. … We’re definitely competitive. So I look for him to come in and do the same thing.

“I expect him to be in the running for Defensive Rookie of Year.”

At 6-foot-3, 254 pounds, Ayers already is the heaviest of the team’s linebackers at a time when the goal is to get bigger on the front seven. That makes him arguably the most important of Tennessee’s rookies in terms of possible contributions for Week 1 at Jacksonville.

“He’s looking good, he’s out there, he fits in exactly what we want, great athlete, so I mean he’s got a lot to learn and we are happy where he’s at this early in camp,” coach Mike Munchak said.

Verner and Ayers were not only teammates at UCLA. They were competitors.

Whether on the field as part of the defense, on the basketball court, playing video games or anything else they could think, they keep score.

“At UCLA, I believe he returned five interceptions and fumbles for touchdowns,” Ayers said. “I had what? Four. He always tells me I didn’t catch him. It’s small things or whatever that make us better, but it’s all in fun.

“We just want to push each other on the field. … We’re just trying to make each other better.”

Actually, Ayers had only three returns for touchdowns in college.

There’s nothing he can do now to overcome Verner in that regard, but he does know exactly what it will take to get early professional bragging rights. He already has a leg up, having been drafted two rounds earlier than his friendly rival, who has done his best to make sure Ayers will do the best he can.

“I’ve been talking to him here, telling him, ‘If you need help with anything, just let me know and things like that,’” Verner said. “We’re going to need him.”

Verner, a 2010 fourth-round pick, played in all 16 games last season, started 12 and finished with 103 tackles — fourth on the team and most among the cornerbacks. He also had a team-high three interceptions, forced one fumble and recovered two.

Those numbers were consistent with what he did in college, where — in a four-year career — he developed a reputation as a guy with a knack for the ball and the ability to make plays.

“We’re definitely were competitive in all aspects,” Verner said. “We’d play video games, we would play basketball. When we were out on the field, we were trying to figure out who was going to score more touchdowns, who was going to get more turnovers.”

Ayers turned professional with one remaining year of eligibility but already was a two-time All-American, a finalist for the 2010 Butkus Award (honoring the game's top college linebacker).

“The tape says it all,” Verner said. “He’s one of those people that when the lights come on, it doesn’t get too big for him. He might be good in practice, but when the game comes he’s a totally different beast out there. He’s always around the ball and he’s always making plays.

“That’s what he’s always done ever since he was at UCLA. He’s just a special guy. He’s one of those guys who’s just that type of player. He’s a football player.”

A football player with a goal.

“I saw what he did when he came out of UCLA, just like me,” Ayers said. “He did a good job [last] year. … We always compete, so I’m just going to try to outdo what he did.

“It gives me a lot to look forward to and keep working hard.”