- Blair Angulo, Reporter, WeAreSC.com
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It's there, but Akeem Ayers is too focused to get sidetracked.
It is a buzz he'd never heard.
Ayers senses the added attention. Knows the whispers are there. Knows a huge year can be life-changing.
He's aware that NFL scouts will be keeping an eye on his No. 10. His own eyes, though, are a place of concentration. One of the nation's premier linebacker prospects is first concerned with meeting UCLA's expectations.
"My main focus is on winning, something we haven't done in a few years," Ayers says following a recent practice, sweat droplets sliding off his forehead. "I'm working hard and trying to bring my teammates along."
It started in the spring, the junior linebacker from Los Angeles locking himself in the film room while NFL draft experts drooled at the thought of Ayers' raw potential and physical skills.
Ayers is listed at 6 feet 4, 255 pounds and has shown glimpses of greatness. He scored three defensive touchdowns last season, including the go-ahead score against Temple in the EagleBank Bowl.
Ayers isn't satisfied, citing the numerous times he hurt UCLA's defense by taking unsuccessful risks, over-pursuing or missing on a game-breaking interception. Last year he would try to make impossible plays.
"I had to take a big step and put more time into studying the playbook," Ayers said. "I got better at learning the defense and helping other guys out there. I'm focused on learning what offenses do. That's definitely going to bring more big plays my way."
Coach Rick Neuheisel hopes Ayers can control, or at least contain, his urge to do everything.
"He has great instincts, so when he looks to make plays that aren't really his to make, he leaves a gap open," Neuheisel said. "As he matures and realizes how important he is to us, he needs to trust that we'll give him chances to make plays."
His name might get called a bit more now that starting defensive end Datone Jones is out indefinitely with a broken right foot. Maybe he won't be as effective. Ayers and All-America safety Rahim Moore were the perhaps biggest beneficiaries of Jones' pass rushing skills. With Jones sidelined, opposing quarterbacks might have more time to think.
"This is football, that stuff happens," said second-year defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough. "Whenever you lose a big-time player, everybody around him has to step their game up. Rahim and Akeem have to step their games up. Everyone has to do a little bit more."
Moore and Ayers spent much of the offseason talking about exactly that, setting lofty goals for one another.
"Akeem is one of the best players I've ever played with," Moore said. "He's blessed by God to have the ability that he has. He's fast, tall, physical and smart. It's tough to get all of those in one player. He wants to be the best."
And that's exactly Ayers' dilemma. He possesses a tendency to try to do too much -- something he's trying to water down -- yet, Jones' injury means he has to do more.
UCLA sophomore quarterback Kevin Prince thinks Ayers will be fine.
"He's tough for any offense," Prince said. "The interception against Oregon last year, that's not a typical linebacker play. That's just an athlete being an athlete. His athleticism is what makes him difficult for offenses."
Ayers, who attended nearby Verbum Dei High School, has always welcomed the playmaking duties. Baseball was first sport he tried -- at the age of 4 -- and even then, he preferred playing shortstop because that's where all the action was. He loved hitting in the middle of the lineup because of the opportunity to drive in runs.
"I hit two home runs in one game when I was 9," Ayers said. "Sometimes I wish I would have given baseball a shot in high school."
Instead, Ayers excelled as a defensive end at Verbum Dei, receiving offers from schools such as Michigan, Nebraska, California and USC. In the end, Ayers' heart was in Westwood, with Berkeley finishing a close second.
"I went with where I felt comfortable," Ayers said. "In the long-term, I felt comfortable with the coaches, the facilities and the area. I rather stay home and play football."
It's hard to argue with his choice to stick with football. If it's any consolation, Ayers has developed into a renowned home run hitter for UCLA's defense. He enters his junior season on various award watch lists, including the Bednarik Award, which is given to the nation's top defender.
Ayers is a projected first-round selection, as high as the 20th overall pick by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. in his preseason draft board.
"I have to enjoy the time I have with him," Moore said. "He makes my job easier, especially when we're on the same side of the field. Now that we're captains and leaders on this team, me and him are going to do some spectacular things to help us win."
Whether Ayers is negatively affected by the chatter he has generated remains to be seen. UCLA's season opener Sept. 4 should serve as an opportunity to gauge his focus level.
"We'll let Kansas State figure that out," Bullough said smiling.
Blair Angulo is an author of the UCLA blog at ESPNLosAngeles.com. You can follow him on Twitter.
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