Auburn's players and coaches say one of the highlights of preseason has been the play of the freshman safety from Olive Branch, Miss., High. Despite a late arrival on campus while waiting on his academic paperwork to be approved, Bates has been able to make an early splash.
"I worked out twice a day, every day when I was still at home," Bates tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "I wanted to be in shape when I got to Auburn. I didn't want to let my new teammates down."
Bates has shown he is in shape and that he has a knack for finding the football on both run and pass plays. "Getting to the football is my thing," he notes. "When I see the ball I am trying to get to it as fast as I can and make a play."
Chizik had praise for Bates on Saturday night following the second major scrimmage of the preseason and that continued when the Tigers returned to practice on Tuesday night. "Daren did a nice job in the scrimmage and we are really trying to ramp up his reps," the head coach says. "We are just trying to see where he can fit in on the defense."
Sophomores Drew Cole and Mike Slade are competing with Bates for the second starting safety spot opposite returning starter Zac Etheridge with another returning starter, Mike McNeil, out of action with a leg injury. McNeil is not expected to be ready for game action until after the start of the season. With McNeil's spot vacant, Chizik says that Bates "is going to be in the mix" for being a first-stringer to start the season.
"Again, he is a young guy who started late and has got so much catching up to do," Chizik says. "He showed some flashes in that scrimmage that I thought were really, really encouraging."
Thigpen says that he has been encouraged by the freshman's aggressiveness and knack for making plays in the secondary. Bates has been learning to play both strong safety and free safety. "I like either one," he says. "As long as I am out there making plays, I am happy. Getting on the field is what I want to do."
Daren Bates is shown at an Auburn practice.
As the Tigers prepare for their Sept. 5th season opener vs. Louisiana Tech, Bates notes that he has plenty left to do. "I am working on my foot speed and my technique," he says. "I am working on back pedal."
Chizik says he is impressed with the conditioning level Bates had when he moved to campus earlier this month. "It is really pretty amazing," the coach says. "He is a great kid and he really cares about football. It shows up. You can tell. Physically, he has got a chance to play in this league early, I believe. We have just got to know that mentally he can do things we are asking him to do and again he has shown flashes every day he is getting better."
Now that he is positioning himself to play right away as a freshman, is Bates surprised? "Actually, I am surprised," he says. "When I came in I was lost. I didn't know what was going on. Fortunately, I had Mike McNeil and Zac Etheridge helping me out. They showed me what to do."
McNeil has not been cleared for contact yet after breaking a bone in his leg. Safeties coach Thigpen has assigned McNeil to watch Bates and give him pointers. "Mike tells me on what I need to work on," Bates says. "Anytime I have a question I can ask him."
One thing that Bates has shown he doesn't need help with is being aggressive. He has caused fumbles in both scrimmages with big hits and picked off a pass. "Anytime I make a tackle, I am trying to get that ball out," he says.