The first Ashland University football game I covered was played on natural grass at Community Stadium.

Gary Keller was the head coach, Donald Church was the star running back and Steve Clinkscale, the current co-defensive coordinator at the University of Michigan, roamed the secondary.

In the 25-plus years since, I’ve covered All-Americans and future NFL Draft picks. Rarely has anyone impacted a game like Michael Ayers.

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Ashland’s fifth-year linebacker is among the most disruptive defensive players to wear Purple and Gold in the past quarter-century — and the NFL has begun to take notice.

“You’ve got a different pro team coming in every week to take a look at him,” longtime AU coach Lee Owens said. “We’ve had some great linebackers over the years, but he’s as good as anyone who’s played here.”

Other Eagles have had a greater influence on the outcomes of games largely because of the position they played.

All-American quarterbacks Billy Cundiff, Taylor Housewright and Travis Tarnowski touched the ball on every offensive snap. They all led teams to the playoffs and were candidates for the Harlon Hill Trophy, Division II’s Heisman.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Adam Shaheen. The tight end was other-worldly during his final two seasons at AU and another of AU’s Harlon Hill candidates. The former college basketball player was a two-time All-American and became one of the only players in Division II history to declare early for the NFL Draft. He was selected by the Chicago Bears in the second round in 2017 with the 45th overall pick.

What Shaheen was then to the offense, Ayers is now to the defense — a player who can change the complexion of a game at any moment. He did just that in AU’s season-opening 31-14 win over nationally-ranked Notre Dame College. Ayers had 11 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss, and broke up three passes.

In AU’s 56-17 win over Northwood, Ayers had perhaps his greatest game as an Eagle. He had nine tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and forced three fumbles.

“You just don’t find players that can make things happen like he does,” veteran AU defensive coordinator Tim Rose said. “I’ve not had a player who makes that many plays on a consistent basis that turn games around.

“That just doesn’t happen.”

The ageless Rose, whose college coaching résumé speaks for itself, arrived in Ashland in 2009. He had a ringside seat for the destruction wrought by defensive tackles Jeris Pendleton and Jamie Meder.

Pendleton was selected by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL draft and played parts of four seasons with the Jaguars, Dallas Cowboys and Indianapolis Colts. Meder was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent by the Baltimore Ravens in 2014 and played for the Browns from 2014 to 2018.

Unless you know what you’re looking for, dominant play on the interior of the defensive line isn’t always easy to spot. Pendleton and Meder both were defensive stars at AU, but their highlight reels didn’t pop the way Ayers’ does.

“He plays with speed. He’s physical and his instincts are amazing,” Owens said. “We’ve got a lot of good players and we’ve got one great player.”

That is high praise for an undersized walk-on. A late-bloomer, Ayers wasn’t highly recruited coming out of Walnut Ridge High School in Columbus, despite earning a spot on the Division II All-Ohio first team as a defensive back in 2016.

He arrived in Ashland in the fall of 2017 as a 183-pound safety and was redshirted. The following year, he moved to whip — a hybrid defensive back and outside linebacker — and made 23 tackles in 10 games. He played the whip again in 2019, making 27 tackles in 11 games.

Michael Ayers

“You could tell he had something when he arrived here as a freshman,” AU strength and conditioning coach Malcolm Majesky said. “We were doing a cycle of incline bench with his redshirt lifting group and I really controlled the weight they were doing, but in the last week I took the governor off and let them go. He put up more weight than some of the defensive lineman who were here at the time.

“You could tell there was something there.”

The 2020 season was lost to the pandemic, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Ayers. He moved to linebacker and dedicated himself to the weight room. He played the 2021 season at 202 pounds and was selected the Great Midwest Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year after making 100 tackles, including 12 tackles for loss.

“We moved him to linebacker and he took to it like a fish to water,” Rose said. “He changed his body and maintained his speed and suddenness.”

Ayers continued to remake himself during the last offseason. He reported to camp this year at 220 pounds while maintaining his explosiveness.

“He weighed 210 when he left in the spring and he came back at 220,” Majesky said. “You can tell when you watch him that he hasn’t lost any of his speed or explosiveness.”

About half of the teams in the NFL have sent scouts to campus to see Ayers for themselves. What are they saying?

“He’s a weak side linebacker. He’s never going to be a guy you want to step in the A gap,” Rose said. “The scouts say he’s got the athleticism to play the pass and he’s got the speed to come off the edge. He’s a strong kid and a very smart football player.

“I was talking to one scout and I said, ‘This is Division II.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but he dominates Division II.’ ”

Most of the top linebackers in the NFL are a little heavier than Ayers. Not to worry, Majesky said.

“A few scouts have asked about his size and how much bigger he can get,” Majesky said. “I tell them I could see Michael walking around at 230 with no problem, but I don’t want to limit him to that.”

As for Ayers, he hasn’t let all of the attention go to his head. He’s more concerned about the team’s success than he is about the NFL player personnel executives sitting in the stands at Jack Miller Stadium.

“All around, we’ve had a great effort from everybody,” Ayers said after the win over Northwood while downplaying his role in the victory. “It feels great to have everybody on board.

“We’re just trying to get better each week.”

Rose can’t wait to see what the future holds in store for his humble superstar.

“The kid has done a great job,” Rose said. “He’s got a great chance not just to get signed, but to get drafted.”

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