Houston Bates arrived at Illinois as a defensive end and needed to be converted to linebacker. A redshirt year was necessary to learn the new position. Bates waited his turn, and Saturday was his first chance to see the field.
"Sitting out a year redshirting on the bench, seeing the other guys hitting, I wanted to get my hat in the ring and see what I could do," Bates explained.
The Covington, Louisiana, product made up for lost time with two tackles for loss including a 6-yard sack among his five tackles last Saturday against Arkansas State. He also recovered a fumble. For his effort, he was named Big 10 Freshman Of The Week. He was understandably elated with the honor.
"It builds your confidence when someone notices you are having a good game and playing hard. That's what I try to do, is get people's attention."
He was asked if he expects to match teammate Nathan Scheelhaase, who won the same award six times last season.
"I don't know if I can reach six, but I got one under my belt. I'll try to get there."
Bates was understandably nervous in his first college game.
"I threw up before the game, for sure. I'm following my high school ways. Anxiety, can't sleep the night before. It gets you going. That's what I live for though."
Despite the nerves, Bates had a pretty good idea how he would play.
"My debut was about how I planned. For a redshirt freshman, I think I did alright."
The transition from high school defensive end to Division-1 college linebacker takes time. Bates feels he is making good progress.
"It is different going from putting your hand on the ground every play to dropping back in pass coverage, reading run blocks. It's good though. I like having that title and making it my job to hit people."
His specialty is still rushing the passer, and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning finds ways to get Bates into opponent backfields.
"Oh yeah, rushing the passer is my thing. It was my thing in high school, and I feel like that's the biggest key to my game in college."
The 6'-2", 240 pounder feels the key to the Illinois defense is its togetherness. He is excited how everyone has come together for a common cause.
"Off the field, on the field, everybody's tight. Everybody hangs out on the weekends. We know everybody needs everybody. Everybody strives for each other. We've got to run to the ball and attack, and we'll be great."
Bates feels replacements are being found for the loss of NFL draftees Corey Liuget, Martez Wilson and Mikel Leshoure.
"Yes, everybody's stepping up. We need to take on the role of Corey, Martez and Mikel, and we've got guys that can do it. They know it too."
The pre-med major is part of a youth movement at the linebacker spots. Except for fifth year senior Ian Thomas, all the others are either sophomores or freshmen. He feels talent outweighs inexperience.
"Everybody is just as talented as an older guy. We've got the rookie heart, but we can take on the role of a veteran. The fifth year senior is gonna lead us, but us younger guys can hang with the older guys too.
"Guys will step up. And I'm gonna step up when I need to step up. Age really has nothing to do with it. If you're a good football player, you're a good football player."
Bates shares time with Jonathan Brown at WILL. He feels they compliment one another.
"J.B. has an extra year on me. I think they'll put me in more for the pass. He's better at running, and I'm better at passing."
"They both have a pretty good grasp of our defense. They're picking it up way better than I did last year."
Bates was known as a special team terror in high school. He is finding a role on multiple special teams with the Illini.
"I'm working with kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return and field goal block."
Prognosticators undervalued the Illini defense this season. All that did was motivate Bates and his teammates to play better against Arkansas State last Saturday.
"We don't pay attention to the outside. We know what we can do, and we stepped up and showed people we could play."