When Jon Bateky chose to enroll early at Rutgers out of Poolesville (Md.) High, he did so for a leg up on the competition.
As a 6-foot-3, 220-pound defensive end, Bateky immediately packed on muscle. He shot up to 265 pounds by the fall. With an extra semester on the field, in the classroom and in the playbook, he earned 10 game appearances in 2015 as a utility man on the defensive line.
“(Enrolling early) helped, definitely,” he said. “It helped me get my body prepared — gain 20, 30 pounds before the season started last year. It helped me learn the playbook as well as possible.”
As his sophomore season approaches, Bateky is far ahead of where he was at this point last year.
When head coach Chris Ash and his staff arrived for the spring, Bateky cemented himself at defensive tackle. He fully embraced the permanent move inside when he came back for training camp. Now at 287 pounds, he looks the part of a defensive tackle.
But that barely scratches the surface.
“I’ve honed in on all my techniques because I’m bigger,” Bateky said. “All the little stuff that I didn’t have as a freshman, I feel like I gained as a sophomore.”
Bateky gradually gathered the technical improvements as time progressed. He spent the past spring, summer and month of August as a sponge under defensive line coach Shane Burnham and fifth-year senior Darius Hamilton.
“Coach (Burnham) really knows what he’s doing,” Bateky said. “A lot of stuff that I didn’t really know how to do in certain situations, he taught me. He’s real precise in what he knows how to do. He has a real answer for everything situation and stuff. That really helps. He helped me on a lot, like my technique.”
Burnham nitpicked the adjustments Bateky could make and challenged the sophomore to play up to his potential at the three technique.
The quiet competitor in Bateky accepted.
“He doesn’t say much — he doesn’t say anything at all — but he shows up and works,” Burnham said of Bateky. “And I don’t expect him to be All-Big Ten or anything like that, but he’s a backup (to) Darius, provides quality reps for us. I’m really comfortable at any time turning around and saying, ‘Hey, Jon, get in there.’ So it just gives me a high level of trust where I can put him in and there won’t be a big drop off between he and my one. All we try to do is build depth here and he gives us really consistent, solid depth at d-tackle.”
As Hamilton works his way back from the same knee injury that sidelined him last year, Bateky can fill the void. Ash said Hamilton would play at least half of the snaps on Saturday in the opener at No. 14 Washington. The other half could fall to Bateky.
Bateky landed on the depth chart earlier in the week as Hamilton’s backup.
Behind a three-time captain in Hamilton, Bateky studies his every move.
“Sometimes (a player) can teach you more than a coach can, just watching what (Hamilton) does and stuff,” Bateky said. “I can learn how he steps, how he uses his hands and stuff. So almost to have such a great player like him in front of me is a good resource to use.”
Hamilton credits the attitude of the younger members on the defensive line earlier in camp.
“It’s not so much as me grooming them as them just coming out everyday wanting to get better — wanting to compete, wanting to compete,” said Hamilton, who singled out Bateky and backup nose tackle Kevin Wilkins on the interior of the line. “I think that’s the best part about our room is how competitive we are — not against the offense but with each other.”
It might be time before Bateky can become the defensive tackle Hamilton grew to be over the years. As Burnham said, All-Big Ten is not the expectation for the true sophomore.
“I feel pretty comfortable,” Bateky said. “There’s some good games, some bad games. I learn from those and I feel just way more comfortable. I know what it takes to play in the Big Ten and now I feel like I can play in the Big Ten. I feel more comfortable with what I can do.”