UT Vols freshman Dillon Bates working through 'mental game'

UT Vols freshman Dillon Bates working through 'mental game'

August 13th, 2014 by Patrick Brown in Sports - College

Freshman linebacker Dillon Bates gets set for a drill during Tennessee's practice on Tuesday.

Dillon Bates

Dillon Bates

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

KNOXVILLE - Dillon Bates has taken the X's and O's from meeting rooms and video-review sessions and translated it to the practice or game field countless times before during his football career.

Not like this, though.

The Tennessee linebacker is mentally sharp for a true freshman, but through the first week-plus of the Volunteers' preseason training camp, there's been an overload of calls, coverages, alignments and assignments pouring through his head while the summer heat bears down.

"It's a lot faster, especially with the tempo our offense goes by," Bates said after Tuesday afternoon's practice. "You're in the meeting room and you're seeing everything on film, you know it all and it clicks. You know your mistakes, you know everything that you need to work on. Then when you take it on to the field, it's so much faster. Everything's live.

"There's so many things going through your head: Am I aligned right? What's my assignment? Then the ball's snapped. There's a lot of things to take in, and it's all really fast. That's why you've got to get a lot of time in the meeting room and on the field with the coaches, walking through things, so it becomes that second nature to you to fly around and make plays."

The 6-foot-3, 222-pound four-star recruit got some first-team looks during Tuesday's practice with likely starter Jalen Reeves-Maybin in a noncontact jersey this week. While head coach Butch Jones has praised Bates for his play so far this preseason, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen acknowledged that Bates has struggled some mentally.

With All-SEC linebacker A.J. Johnson anchoring Tennessee's defense and the progress the promising Reeves-Maybin has made this offseason, Bates may not have to start from day one for the Vols, but he appears to be third in the pecking order at linebacker and is on most of Tennessee's coverage units on special teams.

"We've thrown a lot at Dillon," Jones said. "That's the thing again with these freshmen: We have to step back, and it starts with myself keeping things in perspective. These individuals, a lot of them just got here in June, and Dillon Bates is one of those individuals. We've put a lot on his table -- not just playing linebacker, but also every special teams.

"That's a cumulative effect. Your technique, the fundamentals, the details, situational football -- their heads are going. Dillon's one of those individuals that there's a lot going on with the processing of information.

"Your mind is like a computer, and you download the information all the time. How fast? It's stimulus-response, stimulus-response, and you just have to do it over and over and over again."

Thigpen said the mental weight of the Vols' various defensive sets and packages has slowed some of Bates' natural instincts, but the freshman is confident he'll get past that wall.

"That's what I talked to Coach Jones and Coach Thigpen about," he said. "They say the hardest thing is the mental part of it, and once you get the mental part down, you're able to fly around and make plays. That's what I'm working to right now.

"I feel like I'm making steps in my mental game and my game out on the field, but once everything comes together, then that's when you'll be able to fly around and really make plays."

Bill Bates, Dillon's father, did that as a safety at Tennessee and as part of three Super Bowl-winning Dallas Cowboys teams during a 15-year career (1983-97), and the son called his father "the greatest asset" he could have as he makes the jump to big-time SEC football.

Dillon said he calls his dad every other night for tips and advice, football and otherwise, and to ask him questions.

"He always tells me to slow it down," said Dillon, whose two older brothers also played Division I college football. "Just take everything in, and go by every day and work on one thing at a time. If I had a coverage I was struggling with the day before, just break it down slowly in my head, watch film on it and perfect it."

That's still a work in progress for Bates, but he's already shown up enough to draw praise from Tennessee's head coach.

"Dillon Bates is going to be a very, very good football player for us," Jones said. "We need him to continue to mature this season, but I'm very, very pleased with him. He has a great demeanor.

"I can't say enough about him."

Contact Patrick Brown at pbrown@timesfreepress.com.