AUBURN, Ala. -- A month after arriving at Auburn, Daren Bates was a starting safety.
An offseason after switching positions, he was a starting outside linebacker.
Now in his third year, Bates is happy just to be at the same position, hoping to refine his skills and excel in one place.
“I feel like a linebacker now,” said Bates, who works on the strong side. “I’m trying to become a leader on defense. Every day and every time I get out on the field, I’m more of a linebacker.”
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With indefatigable seniors Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens having graduated, Bates, with 22 career starts to his credit at safety and linebacker, will be looked upon to provide leadership in a young Auburn linebacker corps in desperate need of it.
Sophomore Jake Holland, the projected starter at middle linebacker, has 12 career tackles. Junior Jonathan Evans, the projected starter at weak-side linebacker, has been an emergency starter his first two years.
The most experienced of the group, Eltoro Freeman, has had an on-again, off-again career, with coaches wondering whether he will harness his potential.
Sophomore Harris Gaston barely has played. And a pair of redshirt freshmen -- Jawara White and LaDarius Owens -- still are learning the intricacies of the position.
It’s why Bates is taking reps at middle linebacker -- “just in case.”
“I just look at is expanding my role, expanding my horizons,” Bates said.
And his waist line. Listed at 201 pounds, Bates wants to get bigger. He is playing at 210 pounds this spring but wants to get to 220 by the time the season starts.
To get there, he is eating ... and eating and eating. He had three containers of Muscle Milk with him Wednesday. He downs those daily, along with four meals.
“I go to Smoothie King at least twice a day,” he said. “Sometimes we go over to coach (Ted) Roof’s house for steaks. I try to eat at least three.”
The goal is to get bigger but not lose sight of why coaches moved him to linebacker in the first place -- to get faster as a unit on defense.
“I want to be about 220 and still keep the speed and quickness,” he said. “Just bigger and stronger and still keep my quickness.”
Technical teaching points remain.
Bates, who recorded 70 tackles and was Freshman All-SEC as a safety in 2009 before making 48 stops last year, has struggled with his tackling technique. He will throw himself at ballcarriers, going for a knockout blow instead of wrapping up. His form has frustrated coaches and teammates alike.
Those struggles and a shoulder injury limited his reps late in the season. He came off the bench in three of the Tigers’ final four games, including the BCS national championship game, making just eight tackles in Auburn’s final six games.
But he is determined to fix those mistakes and become a leader on a defense that returns only three starters from last year: Bates, senior safety Neiko Thorpe (who is playing a new position) and sophomore defensive end Nosa Eguae.
“(Leadership) comes naturally,” Bates said. “Ever since I was little, I’ve tried to be a leader on the field and off the field. It’s nothing hard for me.”
He has heard critics say the Tigers are going to take a major step back following their national championship run. He generally ignores them.
“That doesn’t bother me at all,” Bates said. “I know what we have out there now. Most people don’t see what we’ve got out there, what kind of players, what kind of competitors. I think we’re going to be better than what people think.”