KNOXVILLE — Ayres has long been a name associated with pride at the University of Tennessee.
Ayres Hall, UT’s signature academic building, was named after Brown Ayres, the school’s 12th president.
Brown Ayres’ great-grandson was a freshman on the Volunteers’ 1951 national championship football team.
Now his great-great-grandson is leaving a mark.
Joseph Ayres, a Knoxville native and former McCallie School multisport standout, has joined UT’s main rotation as a walk-on, redshirt freshman defensive tackle.
“I’ve just always wanted to be a Vol,” the 6-foot-3, 263-pound Ayres said after Monday’s practice. “It’s a dream come true.”
It had always been just that — a dream. Ayres, who weighed 225 pounds after his senior soccer season at McCallie, had a 33 percent scholarship offer to play tight end at UT-Chattanooga. He gave the Mocs a visit and an honest look, but their Big Orange brothers were always Ayres’ first choice.
But there was no guarantee Ayres would play football at UT. Even he didn’t think he’d make the team, but he showed up for former coach Lane Kiffin’s freshman walk-on tryouts so he could always know he tried.
He made the team, bulked up and settled back at defensive tackle a few weeks ago after also dabbling at offensive tackle and punter. He was the third defensive tackle on the field for the Vols against 10th-ranked Florida.
Starter Montori Hughes, UT’s only proven defensive tackle, has been battling a stinger. And Ayres, according to first-year head coach Derek Dooley, simply outplayed many of the team’s other scholarship tackles.
“Early last week, I was still on the scout team,” Ayres said. “It just happened on Wednesday — they called me up. I wouldn’t say it was flashes of brilliance, but I’d say it was just a lot of hard work and just striving to be the best that I can.”
Ayres entered Saturday’s game on UT’s first time on defense and rotated in and out the rest of the day.
“The first half, it was a little rough for me, the nerves getting to me — being from Knoxville, growing up a UT fan,” Ayres said. “But the second half, I definitely calmed down and thought I handled myself pretty well."
Ayres played “really well,” according to one of his idols, walk-on turned starting middle linebacker Nick Reveiz.
Even Reveiz, who has been doubted nearly his entire career, has been shocked at Ayres’ progress.
“Everyone will write you off at some point,” Reveiz said. “I admit, I looked at Joseph last year and thought, ‘He’s playing D-line at 240? That’s not looking good.’ I didn’t say that, though. I just thought it. I told him, ‘Just work. Just show the coaches you want to work, and ask them what you can do, and spend extra time in the weightroom and the film room, and I promise good things will happen.
“I can’t believe how far he’s come. First week of camp, he was on scout team and just ripping up the offense, and coaches were like, ‘We’ve got to play this guy. He’s too good not to try.’ Then he got his chance, and he played really well on Saturday. Joseph was going against a 350-pound guard, and he was knocking him back and holding his gap.
“I think he’s going to keep playing more and more.”
Ayres hopes to earn a scholarship and a starting position eventually. He watched Reveiz do it. He watched offensive lineman Cody and Cory Sullins do it last season.
Why not Joseph Ayres?
“A lot of us were overlooked in high school, and it’s just kind of that driving force,” Ayres said. “There’s a ton of guys who have done it, and you just talk to them and learn from them and watch what they do and how they work and the extra effort they put in, and you just strive to be like them.
“I always set goals, and when I get there, I set another goal. This has been unbelievable, but I don’t want to stop now. I want to keep going.”
Contact Wes Rucker at firstname.lastname@example.org or 865-851-9739. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/wesrucker or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.