It's hard to imagine a three-year starter and Auburn's leading tackler from 2011 as being a player whose stock improved in the spring, but that's the exactly the case with Bates. A safety as a true freshman for the Tigers in 2009, Bates moved to linebacker for his sophomore season and had and up and down year as he adjusted to life closer to the line of scrimmage.
In 2011, however, he came into his own at the position and improved his play down the stretch by leaps and bounds. Starting all 13 games, Bates finished with 104 tackles, two and a half sacks, and tied Eltoro Freeman for second on the team in tackles for losses with eight and a half. While those numbers were good, there were still times when Bates showed the inconsistency of a second-year linebacker.
Bates is now around 220 pounds and should provide more punch as a senior linebacker.
Settled in his role on the outside and also one of the leaders on the defense, Bates had a very good spring and is one of the players that Brian VanGorder said he's counting on to carry the team forward throughout the summer and into the fall. Bates said for him the new defense was one that fits him well and it all begins with VanGorder.
"He thrives on making sure we have the small details correct and I can see the difference in each player, including myself, on doing the details right," Bates said of the first-year coordinator.
The improvement for Bates in the spring was something that was noticed by Head Coach Gene Chizik. Always a player with the ability to make plays all over the field, Chizik said the biggest thing he saw from Bates was his ability to adjust to the new system in a short time.
"I think he is really understanding his role and where he fits in the defense," Chizik said of Bates.
With the spring under his belt and feeling more and more at home at linebacker with each passing day, Bates said he feels good about the progression of the defense, but knows there is plenty more work to put in before the Tigers are ready to face off against Clemson in the Georgia Dome.
"I have come a long way," Bates said. "I put in extra time with Coach Thig (linebacker coach Tommy Thigpen) and Coach VanGorder just working to get better and become a leader for the team.
"I think all-around the defense got better the more each individual learned what we have to do in order to do our job and then come together collectively to play. Until everybody is on the same page and has the knowledge of the defense all together, that's when we'll be great."
In his first season coaching linebackers for the Tigers, Thigpen said in Bates he's got a player who understands the game and is very coachable. Those are two big traits when working in a new defense and makes Bates an important player for the Tigers in 2012.
"He plays on the back end so he gets the back end part of it, the passing part of it," Thigpen said. "Now he's playing down in the box, which for him he's real comfortable. Just watching him move around. You say it to him one time. He makes a mistake, he knows exactly what he did wrong, and that's what you want to do."