In a departure from previous years, through the first two weeks of the season not a single true freshman had played a down for Alabama. But Bates proved too good to keep on the bench. Stan Eggen, Bama's Defensive Line coach explained; "We told Todd when he was ready to play that we'd put him in, and it's a credit to him. He's worked hard. He's worked on his technique, and Saturday was the day. It was fun to watch him play."
As a true freshman, the 235-pound Bates has some growing to do. But his position coach already praises him as one of the most physical players on the defensive line. "Todd's just got a motor," Eggen said. "He works hard and takes great pride in what he does. He's worked hard on his technique to learn how to use his speed and quickness. And he plays with great effort."
Carl Torbush, Alabama's Defensive Coordinator, agreed; "After watching the film, Todd did about like I thought after the game. He made some mistakes, but he made them going 100 miles an hour. He plays awful hard. He could have done better, but he didn't shy down one bit."
"This is SEC football," Bates said. "This is as tough as it gets. I don't know why (I played so early). I guess I just want it. I wanted to play."
When pressed, effort is the only explanation Bates can think of to explain why he is the first true freshman to see action. "I try to come off the ball every time. I play hard. If the ball is going the other way, I'm going to run full speed to get to it."
"I've got to work on my strength--my strength and my speed," Bates continued. "And I need to improve my mental toughness. I'm tough, but I need to get tougher. I've got to keep working, trying to get better. Just keep trying to get better."
Playing as a linebacker/defensive end in high school, Bates has been going full speed for a long time. Somewhat of a latecomer to the recruiting scene, the pride of Cleburn County was selected Alabama's Class 4A Lineman of the Year after totaling more than 100 tackles his senior year. His high school coach describes him as a "young Eric Curry," and Bates was generally considered the top defensive-line prospect in the state.
Bates entered school early last summer, giving himself extra time to prepare for the season. But he admits that nervousness threatened to overwhelm him before the start of Saturday's game. "It was unbelievable," the Heflin native said. "It is hard to explain. I was so anxious to play, but at the same time I was scared to make a mistake. The older guys came up to me before the game and told me ‘Just play like you practice.' I calmed down a little bit, but I still kept my intensity--kept hustling, and good things happened."
Of course the ‘good thing' Bates is referring to, occurred late in the third quarter of Saturday's game. With Alabama leading by only seven points, the Razorbacks had just blocked a punt and appeared certain to tighten the score. But on the second play following the turnover Bama's Brooks Daniels blocked an attempted lateral, setting up Bates for the biggest play of his young career. "I was on the far end coming to the quarterback," Bates related. "I saw Brooks jump and then hit the quarterback.
"At first I was thinking ‘incomplete pass,' but then I didn't hear any whistle. So I just ran and scooped the ball up. I was just doing it just in case, but as it turned out… I was asking ‘Is it dead? Is it dead?' And everyone said ‘Go!' So I started running. I just ran."
Twenty-seven yards later, the Tide was set up in Arkansas territory. And after a touchdown pass play to Freddie Milons on the very next play, the contest was essentially done. "He made a big-time play on that fumble," Torbush said. "To go from high school to college and jump in there in front of 85,000 and do what he did, I admire him greatly. He did some good things. He'll be a force for us before the year is over with."
In his post-game comments to the media, Tide Head Coach Dennis Franchione praised the effort by Bates. "Todd did well. He made some freshman mistakes, but all in all it was a good first game for him. The great thing about Todd is he plays hard on every play. He plays with grit and determination. I think he'll only get better. It was certainly good to see that type production from him."
Franchione went on to relate that when the lateral hit the turf, he was on the sideline shouting to his defense, yelling for someone--anyone--to pick up the ball and run. "Actually, I didn't hear him," Bates explained with a laugh. "I was running. I guess that was one piece of coaching that went ignored."
Obviously his entire career lies ahead, but that crucial scoop-and-run versus Arkansas is something Bates won't soon forget. "I'll always remember that big play--and then winning.
"Winning's the most important thing."