Bates Ready For Opportunity at Mike Linebacker

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    Dillon Bates-1-4Dillon Bates had the majority of his 2014 season taken away by a torn labrum that required season-ending surgery in early October.

    He’s back this spring, albeit in a limited role physically as his shoulder heals, but also with a huge opportunity to help the Vols find an answer at a position that could be a huge question mark.

    Bates, who is classified as a redshirt freshman after UT won an appeal for a medical hardship in 2014, is getting a hard look at the Mike – or inside – linebacker position, and will be given the opportunity to play the spot that A.J. Johnson occupied for much of the past four years in Knoxville after playing as a Will – or weakside outside linebacker – in his limited opportunities in 2014.

    “Want to see what he can do,” coach Butch Jones said of the semi-experimental move. “Again, Dillon is an intelligent football player, but having him miss most of the year, having him out there he is going through a learning curve just like all of our young players right now. I think the speed of the game was fast initially but Dillon did some great things. He is athletic, he is very instinctful and he is smart. Again, I said it in my press conference, it is also the style of offenses that you are playing and what you ask for out of a Mike linebacker.”

    Physically, Bates thinks he’s ready for the challenge, even though the coaches and training staff will be easing him back into contact this spring after the torn labrum last year. He’s pushing into the 230-plus pound range and “steadily” putting more on to hopefully get to 240-245 – more of an ideal size for an inside linebacker in the SEC.

    “I’m just trying to put on weight with the strength program,” Bates said. “[Strength] Coach [Dave] Lawson has done a great job. We’ve been working in the weight room all offseason. That weight is going to come naturally – I’m not going to force myself to put on that kind of weight. But I’ve been steadily getting bigger and it’s been coming on naturally so I’ve kept my speed and kept my agility.”

    Mike linebacker carries a large mental responsibility as well. Traditionally, he is the one who calls the signals on defense and makes sure the front seven is properly aligned.

    “The Mike is the quarterback of the defense,” Bates said. “You have to be a more vocal leader and you have to set a front and know everybody, what they’re doing, where they’re place is. So it’s just getting with everybody, working with all the older guys, getting the terminology down.”

    Bates joins Kenny Bynum and Gavin Bryant as other scholarship players expected to get a look at inside linebacker this spring.

    Rising sophomore Jakob Johnson and early enrollee freshman Darrin Kirkland will both be in the conversation this fall as well when they are back from injury. Whoever is the best fit will get help from veteran Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who is locked in as an outside linebacker.

    “It is a challenge and that is where we have to rely on Jalen Reeves-Maybin a little bit as well,” Jones said. “Jalen knows the entire defense inside and out. But we are going to be young and that is one of the questions that we need to get to get answered once spring ball concludes is who are our number two and who are our number three linebackers. So that is one of the points of emphasis as a football program, as a defense, that we have to get answered throughout the course of spring.”