Bates enjoying new home in Illinois

2011-09-08T01:00:00Z Bates enjoying new home in IllinoisBy MARK TUPPER H&R Executive Sports Editor Herald-Review.com
September 08, 2011 1:00 am  • 

CHAMPAIGN - Home for Houston Bates was going to be on the Bayou.

Home was going to be wearing Louisiana State's beloved purple and gold jersey.

Home was going to be playing at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, where the rabid home crowd verbally assaults visitors by taunting, "Tiger bait! Tiger bait!"

His college home was going to be an easy 66-mile drive from Covington, La. to the LSU campus, where his family could see him play out his boyhood dream.

"It's every Louisiana kid's dream to play for LSU," Bates said this week from the edge of the University of Illinois football practice field.

Not every Louisiana high school football star gets to live out his dream, but it appeared Bates would when LSU offered him a scholarship during his junior year at St. Paul's High School in Covington.

But an overzealous recruiting strategy left three recruits with unfulfilled promises and Bates was one of those.

"They offered (scholarships to) 28 guys and they all committed and you can only sign 25," Bates said. "They mentioned my name as a grayshirt possibility and when I heard that I wasn't too pleased."

"Grayshirt," meant LSU still wanted Bates, but would have a scholarship only after six months of Bates paying his own way. It knocked the luster off of Bates' LSU football dream and he decided to wait and see if another school had a better offer.

That school was Illinois.

"Almost a year later, Illinois offered me and I knew that was a sign and I had to come," Bates said this week. "When you get your hopes hurt bad you want to get out and see something else, and that's what I did."

Bates arrived in Champaign last year and the coaching staff decided they could afford to play only one of two freshmen outside linebackers. They opted to give that chance to Brandon Denmark of Tallahassee, Fla., redshirting Bates and saving a year of his eligibility.

That delayed Bates' college debut to last Saturday, when he was on the field for 40 plays during Illinois' 33-15 victory over Arkansas State.

Bates mother and step-father, Fran and John Heaton, drove 14 hours from Louisiana, arriving at 5 a.m., Saturday to see him take the field.

Bates did in a big way, making five tackles including two tackles for loss while getting a sack and recovering a fumble. His performance was enough to earn recognition as Big Ten Conference Freshman of the Week.

"The debut was awesome," he said. "It was everything I expected. You spend a year sitting on the bench watching the older guys do it and wanting to be out there and be the star, but it's a waiting game and you have to be patient.

"Coach Vic (defensive coordinator Vic Koenning) had us ready. He knew all their schemes and we'd prepared for them and he set me up in the right position."

Koenning likes football players who play fast and Bates is always charging downhill. That's why in describing Bates, Koenning said he's, "a rolling ball of butcher knives."

"I'd never heard that before I got here," Bates said. "I guess that describes my game. It means you just run with no intent of your body, that you really don't care, I guess. I haven't asked him about it, but I think it means that you don't have a care and you just run in there and try to make plays."

That's what happened when Bates made the play he's most proud of, a fumble recovery he said he had no business getting his hands on.

"I came around the edge and the running back chopped me down pretty bad, but I saw the ball and got on it," he said.

But that's also what happened when Bates missed a couple plays he could have made.

"I could have had a couple more sacks but I got too far up-field. I get a little impatient. I had the same problem in high school. They always told me ‘whoa' instead of ‘go.'"

Koenning said Bates' passion for going full speed is what sets him apart.

"Playing hard is what he brings to the table," Koenning said. "I wish everyone would play that fast all the time. A lot of guys, when they back off just one step, they become average.

"When you just play relentless, good things generally happen even if you make a mistake."

The trouble is, Bates has such a passion for football that it turns his game-day stomach upside-down. Before every game since junior high school, he becomes so nervous he throws up.

"I can't hold back the nerves and it has to come up," he said of whatever breakfast might have found its way into his system. "It used to be we'd take a walk on the field and I was throwing up on guys' legs and no one really liked that. Now I let it go in the locker room."

Bates doesn't concern himself with trying to avoid this unpleasant habit.

"If I didn't throw up I'd feel like I was going to have a bad game," he said. "It's nerves and anxiety. I can't wait to get out there and I just can't hold it back."

Head coach Ron Zook said back in the spring he was anxious to see Bates finally get to play.

"He has a motor," Zook said. "Right now he's learning. He's all ears and eyes. He's going to get better and better."

When his family made the 14-hour drive to the opener, Bates' mother did not come empty-handed.

"She brought me some Cajun food," he exclaimed. "She brought some jambalaya and crawfish pie. I'm excited about that."

Hopefully, he'll have it finished before breakfast this Saturday.

mtupper@herald-review.com|421-7983

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