Man in the middle

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When A.J. Johnson was suspended 10 games into Tennessee’s 2014 season, the drop-off at middle linebacker resembled Niagara Falls. Whereas Johnson averaged 10.1 tackles per game, replacements Jakob Johnson (5) and Kenny Bynum (4) combined to average just 3.0 tackles per game over the final three contests.

“Last year at the end of the season I thought we lost the athleticism at the Mike,” linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said. “This year we probably need to gain that back.”

That, in a nutshell, is why Tennessee coaches moved Dillon Bates from weakside linebacker to middle linebacker this spring. The 6-foot-3, 230-pounder lacks the heft of Johnson (6-feet-4, 240) and Bynum (6-feet-1, 243) but his agility more than compensates.

“Back in the days when teams lined up with two backs and a tight end, the linebacker was huge … 240 or 245 pounds,” Thigpen said. “With the game the way it’s played now — a perimeter game — you’ve got to have guys who are able to run. With bigger linebackers the fatigue part comes in a lot faster, so you want guys like Dillon Bates who are 230 pounds, really cerebral and can play from sideline to sideline.”

Defensive coordinator John Jancek offered a similar assessment, noting: “Dillon can move, change direction. He’s a great athlete…. To be honest, the days of the big old Mike linebacker are gone. The game is lateral — quick screens on the perimeter. What we ask our Mike linebacker to do is be able to run, so that’s a positive having Dillon there.”

The son of former Vol safety and long-time Dallas Cowboy special-teams standout Bill Bates, Dillon Bates is finding Mike (middle) quite a departure from Will (weakside).

(Danny Parker/

“It’s a whole different world,” he said. “I’m getting with the older guys, getting the terminology down, getting all the different techniques. But it’s all coming naturally. The more work at it I can do, the better I’ll be.”

Although the athleticism required to play them is similar, Will and Mike have some notable differences.

“The keys are a lot different when you’re playing out in space (at Will),” Thigpen said. “When you’re playing in the Mike position the action is a lot faster. The hybrid position he was at last year, he’s kind of a cross between a DB and a linebacker. The Mike has got to get all 11 guys lined up, so it’s big difference.”

Bates conceded as much, noting: "Mike is kind of the quarterback of the defense. You have to be a more vocal leader and you have to set a front and know what everybody’s doing, where their place is, so it's more mental (than Will).”

Middle linebacker isn’t totally foreign to Bates. It was one of several positions he played en route to earning a four-star rating as a senior at Ponte Vedra (Florida) High School in 2013.

“In high school I kind of played everywhere, depending on who we were playing and what kind of plan we were putting in,” he told InsideTennessee. “I played safety, D-end, Mike. I got a little taste of everything growing up, so it’s not something completely different to me.”

That showed in Tennessee’s very first workout of the spring.

“He really did some good things the first day,” Jancek said. “He came out and was nervous. He was making all of the calls at the middle linebacker position, which was new for him. You could see him really calming himself down throughout the course of practice. By the end of practice he was moving pretty good.”

(Danny Parker/

Bates’ athleticism earned him some special-teams participation as a true freshman last fall. He suffered a torn labrum in Game 4, however, missed the rest of the season and was granted a redshirt year. He says those four brief appearances last fall are helping him considerably this spring.

“The first four games last year was really big for me,” he said. “I knew what to expect. I knew what the physicality of the game was, knew what the game speed was. I can go out there and know what kind of physicality I need to bring.”

Like his dad, Dillon is an upbeat kind of guy. Last fall’s injury may have curtailed his season but it didn’t curtail his positive outlook.

“Last year was the first big chunk of games I’ve missed in my career,” he said. “It was weird at first but I thought of it as a positive after talking to my dad. He always had some kind of injury where he was out for a few games but he always tried to look at it as a positive thing. It’s not really a setback. It’s a blessing in disguise, an obstacle you need to overcome.”

Based on the first two spring workouts, he has overcome this obstacle quite well.

“I like him,” Thigpen said. “He’s picked his game up. He comes in every single day, talking football. I’m surprised at what he knows right now. He’s going to be able to compete. He’s got a lot of athleticism, a lot of savvy. I’m really pleased with Dillon Bates.”

Bates discusses return to practice

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