Houston Bates is now listed as a starter at WILL linebacker. After two years learning the system, he wants to take no chances. He wants to keep his spot and play well, so his work ethic is coming in handy.
"I'm expected to have a bigger role, take on more. So I've got to get a lot of work in. It's a new season, new beginnings."
Bates backed up Jonathan Brown last season, but the two share the two inside linebacker positions now.
"Jonathan is a MIKE for now, and I'm at WILL. That's how it's going to look most of the season."
With Bates from Louisiana and Brown from Memphis, the Illini boast two southern men as starters on the inside. But it appears southerners make a distinction between people from the two areas.
"We call each other southern boys, but Louisiana is the deep South, and Tennessee is mid South."
The inside linebacker spots have some depth, but Brown and Bates will likely see much of the playing time while younger players develop. Bates counts walkons among the group, but sheer numbers do allow some rest during practices.
"Yes, we've got enough depth. We've got six guys right now, so with the incoming freshman class, we'll have 8-10. Hopefully, we'll be rotating guys in and out of games this year, so it won't be that big a change."
The 6'-2", 240 pounder needed time to adjust to all the coaching changes after last season, but it appears to have worked out for the best.
"It was kind of shocking. I didn't know what to expect, but they came in with a bang. Expectations flew up, and I found myself taking on a huge role. They expect a lot out of me to lead even though I'm only a sophomore. I expect to take on the role."
Did the new Illinois coaches use the correct approach to help you out of your doldrums?
"Yes sir, they definitely did. It's a big change, but we're getting used to it. Changes in practice tempo, schemes, coaches, everything. I love it."
Linebacker coach Mike Ward has smoothed the transition for Bates.
"I love him, he's a great guy. He comes from a good family, and he teaches us like his kids. We see him as a father figure, and to me that's one of the most important things in a coach."
He also likes new defensive coordinator Tim Banks.
"Banks is a great guy. I love his teams, I love his attitude. He wants to definitely attack the ball; that's the kind of defense we have."