UCLA’s Akeem Ayers leads with his heart


The most re-watched, talked about, analyzed play of UCLA’s 2009 football season was when linebacker Akeem Ayers swooped in on Oregon quarterback Nate Costa, picking the ball out of mid-air and toeing the line at the back of the Rose Bowl end zone.

The touchdown had a long highlight-reel shelf life on television. Work in the Bruins’ film room came to a standstill when tape of that game was reviewed. Students on campus still ask Ayers to go through the play-second-by-second.

But here’s the truth:

“I was supposed to drop into coverage,” Ayers says, smiling. “I got sucked in on the play action.”

And there is the beauty and, occasionally, the frustration that come with such a player. To err is human, but what Ayers can do to make up for a mistake is often divine for the Bruins.

“He can do the wrong thing on a play, but he’ll end up right where the action is,” defensive tackle David Carter says. “It’ll be the wrong assignment, but coaches can’t yell at him because it was an interception and a touchdown.

“That’s a real football player, where your heart tells you what to do. He has the football gods in his corner.”

Ayers may need them this season.

There is too much ability and a resume of too many big plays for Ayers to be ignored. And he won’t be, because there is too little other experience in the front seven on defense.

A year ago, when UCLA still had tackle Brian Price, linebacker Reggie Carter and the Bosworth twins, Kyle and Korey, Ayers could roam free and touch down like a tornado.

Ayers can be credited with as many as 45 of UCLA’s points last season, personally scoring three touchdowns, including one on an interception that clinched the EagleBank Bowl victory over Temple. Other plays he made led directly to scores.

“I like those kind of defensive stats,” UCLA defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough says.

There were other times, though, that Ayers was caught out of position, following the heart instead of the head.

“Fans see the special plays, but it’s the coaches who see where they got a big 10-yard run when someone got out of their gap,” Bullough says.

When end Datone Jones suffered a broken bone in his right foot two weeks ago, it left Ayers as the only player returning to the front seven who started a game last season.

“I need to be a voice on defense this season,” says Ayers, who was voted a team captain by his teammates. “Everybody makes mistakes in games. Guys like Reggie and Boz made fewer because they had been in the system longer. I have to be like them now.”

Teammates have noticed a difference.

Ayers once topped the suspect list if a teammate found a container of salt had been poured into his drink. Cleats would go missing in the locker room when Ayers went shoe “shopping.”

“Our freshman year, we had a friendly war going, hiding each others’ equipment,” linebacker Steve Sloan says. “He was 15 minutes late to practice one time and still didn’t have his helmet.”

Not anymore.

“There are no more ‘kick me’ signs taped to guys’ backs,” Sloan says. “Now he’s a lot more serious. He’s growing up and knows what he has to do. Everything is football.”

Coach Rick Neuheisel doesn’t want to see Ayers alter his personality too much. He is, after all, the bolt that jams opposing teams’ offensive gears.

The interception and touchdown against Oregon was a play “only a few people in America can make,” Bullough says.

Ayers, who is 6 feet 4, 255 pounds, has enjoyed other spotlight moments. He slipped on the RFK Stadium tundra during the EagleBank Bowl, then popped up and stayed put. That left him in perfect position to intercept a screen pass and stroll two yards for a touchdown to erase a 21-20 Temple lead with six minutes left.

“He’s unique,” Neuheisel says. “He’s as instinctive as any defensive player I have been around; he and [free safety] Rahim Moore.

“That certainly puts him in a position to make big plays. Sometimes it puts him in trouble because he relies on those instincts and he ends up wrong. You don’t want to coach him out of them, because we benefit from them so often.”

Ayers’ big-play habits already have speculators assessing his NFL future. While only a junior, he can declare for the draft after this season and his name is making the rounds in mock drafts.

Ayers avoids such chatter, saying, “I’d rather not talk about the NFL. I want to stay focused on what I have to do this season.”

Otherwise, Ayers says, “I could end up on some else’s touchdown highlight.”