AKEEM AYERS, THE MAN, IS SOFT-SPOKEN AND POLITE. HE ENJOYS ART, PARTICULARLY drawing, and as a child growing up in Los Angeles, he filled sketchbooks with creations of his own imagination. "Some people would say I'm shy or that I keep to myself," Ayers says. "I'm pretty cool, but it's totally different when I'm on the field."
Indeed it is. When the ball is snapped, Ayers, a preseason All-America linebacker, is his own scariest creation. He makes otherworldly plays and serves up monster hits. His teammates will attest to the latter—the 6' 4", 254-pound junior has gained a reputation for punishing the opposition even on the practice field. "I'm just trying to practice good habits and work on my skills," says Ayers, explaining why he demolishes teammates.
Bruins defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough appreciates that go-hard-all-the time approach ("It's our defensive mentality," he says), even though it might sometimes make offensive coordinator Norm Chow wince. When asked to cite the best hit he's ever made, for example, Ayers says, "this one time last spring, on Derrick Coleman [a tailback and Bruins teammate]. It was one of those hits when you make the contact and you don't feel any resistance. It's one of those good feelings."
Provided, that is, you were not Coleman.
Ayers became known as a hard hitter at nine years old, playing in a youth league in Los Angeles. "The coaches loved it. Especially during practice," he says. At Verbum Dei High in L.A., Ayers played mostly at defensive end. The all-boys' Catholic school's football program had been reinstated in 2003 after a one-year hiatus because of a schoolwide lack of financing. In '06, Ayers's senior season, Verbum Dei won its first conference title in 24 years. During the run he made 22 tackles in a playoff game against Temple City.
Ayers built on that reputation for big-moment plays and games at UCLA. In his first college appearance, as a redshirt freshman against Tennessee in 2008, he blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown. Early last season he made an athletic pick-six in the end zone against Oregon, and in the EagleBank Bowl against Temple on Dec. 29, he intercepted a pass deep in Owls territory and returned it for the touchdown that clinched the win and pushed UCLA above the .500 mark.
Overall in 2009 Ayers snagged four interceptions, made 12½ tackles for loss and forced two fumbles. His playmaking ability makes him indispensable on the Bruins' defense, though it also makes him something of a loose cannon. "More often than not, his instincts have been pretty darn good, but sometimes those instincts take him out of his defensive responsibility," says coach Rick Neuheisel. "[We] can give up big plays because he's not where he's supposed to be, because he thought something else was going to happen. It's a fine line of getting him to understand what we need but not curtailing those instincts."
Neuheisel is also pleased with Ayers's drive; the linebacker has been known to stumble and fall on a play and still get up and make the tackle. This season UCLA fans can expect more of that kind of hustle.
"We're a bunch of hungry players," Ayers says, "and we're ready to prove ourselves." Some might argue that on the field—including the practice field—Ayers already has.