AU’s star linebacker Michael Ayers and his developing career

Ayers has recorded 59 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and three sacks this season.

Mackenzie Pflum, Reporter

This season has been nothing short of extraordinary for Ashland University’s fifth-year inside linebacker, Michael Ayers.

Coming off of his breakout year in 2022, winning the Great Midwest Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year, to now being at the helm of the nationally ranked AU defense, Ayers couldn’t be more modest about the talent that he brings to the team. 

“I’m just an average player, average,” said Ayers.

Columbus, OH. native, Michael remembers football being a passion from as far back as he could remember. 

“I probably started playing as soon as I came out of the womb.”

— Michael Ayers

His dad being a football coach, Ayers said he felt like he was kind of born into it. He played other sports growing up; basketball, wrestling, baseball, and track, but none of them stuck as football did.

While attending high school at Walnut Ridge, Ayer’s skills on the field began to blossom. He earned first-team All-Ohio, two all-district and two all-city honors, while also leading his team in tackles and interceptions as a senior. 

His love and passion for the game grew the more he played. Coming up on his senior year, he had to make the decision on where he would further his football career. 

“It was between here and Notre Dame. I never even went on an official visit here [Ashland]. I just went off of vibes. I knew I wanted to come to a program that I could build and develop myself in, and Ashland had standards in place I was used to from high school which I liked,” said Ayers.

During his freshman year in 2017 Ayers redshirted. In the following two years, he transitioned from safety to an outside linebacker. In both years he was able to make significant contributions to the team, recording 23 tackles in 2018 and 27 in 2019.

In his 2021 season, Ayers made the move to inside linebacker and he broke loose.

Ayers takes down a Walsh Cavalier quarterback (photo by Wesley Seyfang)

“As I got older things started to click a little more. The game speed slowed down and the maturity in the game came along with it.”

The click he felt landed him first-team 2021 Division 2 Conference Commissioners Association (D2CCA) All-Super Region 1 honor, First-team All-Great Midwest, Nominee for the 2021 Cliff Harris Award, presented to the nation’s top small college defensive player, Finished first on the team in total tackles (100), solo tackles (52), assists (48), tackles for loss (12) and forced fumbles (two), and added three sacks and a fumble recovery.

His success from that breakout season came after Ayers said he had to do some self-reflecting. 

“The season before, I think I kind of got complacent. I didn’t have the season I wanted and my motor was kind of off. I knew I had better skill sets and I didn’t play to the standards I had. I knew I had to hold myself accountable because my team was counting on me.” 

The decision to come back for a fifth year was made with his “brothers” and coaches.

“After last season everyone was kind of asking around, like what are you thinking? Are we coming back? After making sure everything was in order with the coaches, it was a go,” said Ayers. “It really came down to wanting one last season with my brothers.”

In his first game of the season, Ayer’s started his season hot with 11 tackles, getting recognized as one of the top defensive players in the country, and even receiving high praise from CBS NFL reporter, Emory Hunt.

Ayers reminds me a lot of 49ers safety George Odum, and I believe his pathway to playing safety is about the same. He’s a terrific athlete, your classic run-and-chase weakside backer who has great closing speed to the QB and ball carrier. He’s very comfortable out in space and pairs that up with above-average football I.Q. in the passing game,” said Hunt.

Ayer’s said his teammates were the first to tell him about the national recognition he received. “It was cool. But that’s not my focus. My focus is my team and the next game we play.”

Ayer’s is now on the radar of NFL scouts, having met with at least a dozen teams so far, and more are being scheduled out all season.

“We just had the Cleveland Browns scout in here just the other day. He said he checked all the boxes. In terms of football, smarts, work ethic, personality.”

— Defensive Coordinator Tim Rose

“Michael is so nice, unassuming, smiley, and such a warrior. He makes it so easy to coach him because of who he is. Obviously, his performance sets him apart from anyone we’ve had in this program,” said Rose.

Though Ayers loves the idea of playing professionally, to him, it’s a back thought that he is not focused on.

“If the opportunity were to present itself, I wouldn’t mind going,” said Ayers. “Right now I hate hearing about it though. I’m more worried about winning games right now.”

Winning games is what “Bad Man Mike,” as his teammates refer to him, is contributing to. The Eagles are 7-1 and are ranked sixth in the nation. Ayers refers to himself as just 1/11th of that success. 

“I’d rather see someone else go out there and ball, than have the greatest game and lose. The team’s success stays forever. There are a lot of successful individuals but no one is around them. I’d rather have something bigger than myself,” said Ayers.  “I want my identity on my team to be selflessness. I would like that. I think that’s who I am.”