AUBURN, Ala. — When freshman Daren Bates finally arrived at Auburn’s practice two days late because of the cumbersome NCAA Clearinghouse process, safeties coach Tommy Thigpen thought the Tigers had made a mistake.
“He was out there, and it was funny because he was bumbling and stumbling and falling to the ground,” Thigpen said. “You’re just like ‘Oh, my goodness, can he play here?’”
Aware of his struggles, Bates, a two-star safety the Tigers took a chance on last winter, felt it necessary to apologize to the coaching staff.
“I don’t know what that was the first day,” he said. “I told (them) I won’t ever have another day like that, and I don’t think I have.”
To say the least. Bates has made a favorable impression in each of the team’s first two scrimmages. The freshman intercepted a pass, forced a fumble and made a handful of tackles working with the second group during the first scrimmage, four days after he joined the team. Last Saturday, when he spent time with the first team, he stood out as well.
“We’re certainly looking to give him every opportunity to be on the field,” head coach Gene Chizik said afterward. “It will be up to him, but what he showed us right now, I think he has a legitimate chance to get on the field if he’ll continue to grow as a player.”
“If he do what he did (in the scrimmage), you can’t keep a guy like that off the field,” Thigpen said.
Auburn has been waiting for somebody to step up at one safety position while projected starter Mike McNeil remains out with a broken leg.
Since dismissing Christian Thompson from the team this summer for violating team rules, the Tigers have rotated backups Drew Cole and Mike Slade in the spot opposite Zac Etheridge. They also have given cornerbacks T’Sharvan Bell and D’Antoine Hood looks at the position, although both have been nagged by injuries since camp opened.
Maybe Auburn just had to wait for Bates. Few thought he would even be at a major Football Bowl Subdivision school. The Olive Branch, Miss., native wasn’t a highly-touted recruit, a two-star prospect by Rivals and Scout with few major college offers heading into last winter.
He committed to Arkansas State following a visit in January but met with several Auburn assistants a week and a half later when they traveled to Olive Branch to speak with his teammate, four-star offensive lineman Aubrey Phillips. The Tigers offered Bates a scholarship he immediately accepted, despite reportedly gaining late interest from Tennessee and Alabama.
Bates had another hurdle to climb last summer, patiently waiting for approval from the NCAA Clearinghouse. Unable to report to Auburn, he worked out twice a day in his hometown, occasionally with his former high school teammates, using medicine balls, hurdles, speed parachutes and weight vests to be ready when he got word.
Despite admitting to being lost the first couple days of camp, he has been a quick study. More importantly, in defensive coordinator Ted Roof’s eyes, the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Bates hasn’t shied away from contact.
“I saw Bates throwing his body around,” Roof said. “That was good to see. He strikes people. ... However fast he is, he hits you at that speed. He’s a guy that seems to show up with the ball a lot.”
Bates won’t turn 19 until November but refuses to look as himself as a freshman.
“I just look at it as playing ball,” he said. “Just ready to get out there and show everybody what I’m all about and help the team.”
His teammates think that might not take long.
“This guy’s a blue-collar football player,” cornerback Walt McFadden said. “He’s a headhunter. He’s running around making tackles, making plays. That’s a guy sticking out on defense. You’ll see him soon.”