"He did actually see me coming," Bates said recalling the play. "We caught eyes before the hit, then I just went in for the blow."
Aptly put, because the Vandy return man literally didn't know what hit him. After being blasted backwards to the ground, he slowly got to his feet before being pointed to the home-team sideline by his teammates.
It was an exciting play, but frankly no different from scores of others that take place every Saturday in games across the country. Except that for Tide fans frustrated by poor kickoff coverage earlier in the year, Bates' blow was a decidedly welcome sight. "Two weeks in a row he's been our special teams Player of the Week," said Special Teams Coordinator Mark Tommerdahl. "Last week he was in on three tackles on kickoff coverage. He brings that mental state that we're looking for. You've heard me use that term before, but Todd Bates really does."
As Tommerdahl often notes, special teams duty isn't for just anybody. It takes a unique player to handle the full-out madness. Delivering a blow is one thing, but imagine two sprinters running smack into each other at full speed, and you'll get an idea of what it takes to cover kickoffs.
"I guess I do have that look in my eyes," Bates said with a chuckle. "I'm just going as hard as I can, making plays as they come to me. I like running down on kickoffs, anything to help my team win. It's something I really enjoy."
Bates has played all season as a reserve defensive end, accumulating 21 tackles and two quarterback sacks in limited action. He also had put in some time on the punt protection unit, but the Mississippi game marked his 2002 debut on kickoff coverage.
Bates would have been out there sooner, but a slow-healing groin injury that required surgery last summer has limited his participation. Tommerdahl explained, "He played special teams last year and did a real good job for us. We just kept waiting for to come along with his injury."
Through nine games, Bates is averaging 15-20 snaps at defensive end. Before Ole Miss, he had 11 snaps on the punt protection unit. But the last three games he has been in on 13, 11 and 18 special teams plays respectively.
Overall the Tide has played very well this season, but kickoff coverage during the early part of the year had been a sore point. Tommerdahl and the Tide coaches were searching for answers, when a volunteer stepped up.
"Todd came to us," Tommerdahl related. "He told us he was ready--and we were more than ready to have him back."
Bates' groin injury was so severe--and his recovery so slow--that the defensive end's availability at all this season was a surprise. "I wasn't able to work out," Bates recalled. "The first part of the summer I was out for four weeks. I couldn't lift or run or anything. Then as my rehabilitation stages progressed, I was able to walk on the treadmill, jog on the treadmill and finally I was able to run on the treadmill."
Fall practice brought his first live action in months. And as far along as two weeks into two-a-days the Tide coaches were still privately predicting a redshirt season for the sophomore athlete. But Bates wasn't the only true freshman to see game action in 2001 by accident. Pain or no pain, the Heflin native was determined to play.
Just don't think it's been easy.
"The pain flared up on me again today," Bates said following Tuesday's practice. "It's still the same thing. Sometimes it'll hurt on Saturdays during games, but then on Sundays it doesn't. Sometimes you can ignore it, sometimes you can't.
"On game days my adrenaline is going so I don't even hardly notice the pain."
Bates' coaches have always praised his "motor," the ability to go full-out on every play. Again this season he's been an effective back-up at defensive end, despite missing most of the squad's off-season lifting. "He's playing now at his freshman strength levels," Tide Strength and Conditioning Coach Ben Pollard said. "From this year to next, he should make a big improvement."
"I started back lifting again at about seven weeks out of surgery," Bates related. "Right now I'm behind and playing catch up. The other guys have about four months on me in the weight room. But by this time next year I'll be caught up.
"On defense I'm just playing my role, coming in whenever they need me to play. I'm always ready on game days. I come to play."
And thankfully for Tide fans, that play can now include flying down the field covering kickoffs. "We've run into two wedge teams the last two weeks in a row," Tommerdahl said. "Todd has a real physical presence getting down the field. We're pleased to have him."
Kickoff coverage seems like the simplest of plays--11 guys running as fast as they can in college football's version of "tackle the man with the ball."
But the reality is more complicated. "I run as hard as I can covering kicks," Bates said, "but you've got to look at it like there is just one man to block you. It's you and him, and you've got to win. But at the same time you've got to see that runner back there returning the kick."
At 6-4, 245+ pounds, the sophomore defensive lineman frankly ought to be too slow for the job. But as Tommerdahl noted laughing, "Evidently not.
"Todd is just smoking. The thing we like about him is he's really playing right now with no concern for his body. We'll take all of that we can get."
"I'm the slowest guy on kickoff coverage," Bates admitted, "but I get down there as fast as I can."