Players to Watch in 2013: No. 7

Our list of Illini players to watch moves on with No. 7 -- Houston Bates.

No. 7 - LEO Houston Bates

Honestly, I don't know much about Bates the football player. I am aware he can grow a gnarly Viking-looking beard, always a good trait to have.

But he's not at Illinois to show off his facial hair. He's in school to play football, and given his lack of playing time last season and new position this year, he's a little bit of a wildcard.

Last season Bates appeared prime for a startering role and plenty of production. The expectations were created by his solid redshirt freshman year, where he had 23 tackles and two really good games against Indiana and Arkansas State.

Most thought he'd start opposite Jonathan Brown in 2012. But that plan was sidetracked by an ankle injury that lasted pretty much from start to finish. He missed two games completely and made only 18 tackles as freshmen Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina logged most of the snaps with Bates and Brown both ailing and less than 100 percent.

In the offseason, Bates was moved to the Leo spot. There's plenty of depth at the inside linebacker positions, creating what could be described as an odd-man-out situation.

But I don't see it that way. I think Bates is perfect for the Leo spot, essentially a stand-up defensive end that mostly rushes the quarterback while sometimes dropping into coverage.

At 6-foot-3, 240-pounds, I think the move makes Bates a player to watch this season. He was named the Defensive Most Improved Player at the conclusion of spring drills, and, entering his junior season, he should be hitting his stride in both the physical and mental side of the game.

He's got to stay healthy though. That's another aspect of this selection, as the options at Leo behind Bates are sketch. Darrius Caldwell got himself thrown out of school. And Abens Cajuste, to me, seems a little out of place at the position. Bates needs to log the most reps here.

If he does see the majority of the playing time, I think he could contend to lead the team in tackles for loss and QB hurries. And thinking about it as a whole, I really like the thought of Bates, Brown, Monheim and Svetina all on the field together in some capacity.

That sounds legit.

Note – For the record, my early August birthday makes me a Leo. While it doesn't apply to Bates or the position, I thought I'd point it out.

No. 8 - OL trio Hill, Karras, Cvijanovic
No. 9 - WR Ryan Lankford
No. 10 - TE Jon Davis

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