A bit wistfully, particularly for a college freshman still awaiting his debut, Dillon Bates talks about when football was just "running around not knowing what you're supposed to do."
Which seems a bit preposterous, since the Tennessee rookie linebacker seemingly has football DNA and hails from a family that includes his three-time Super Bowl-winning father, Bill, a dynamo for the Vols in the early-1980s, and brothers who also played the game at the highest collegiate levels.
Football, admittedly, is all the Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., native knows.
"Just growing up, being around football all the time, I don't remember a time where I didn't know football," said Bates, a prized signee for both his skills and at a position of need in UT's 2014 class. "Just growing up around football 24-7; talking to my dad is the greatest resource that I can pretty ask for. Just talking to him every day has really helped me understanding the game, understanding different coverages and assignments that I'll need to know. It's been a great help having him for advice. That's really helped in my game and maturity."
It's that on-the-field maturity --- instincts betray his youth --- that positions Bates to play early in '14 for the Vols. Tennessee already moved fellow signee Jakob Johnson to the defensive front; ditto for veteran team leader Curt Maggitt. So there's three-year starter and preseason All-SEC pick A.J. Johnson, and safety-turned-linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Beyond that? Bates is working every day to see what happens.
"It's not really in my … I can't really control that much. It's all about what I can do to make myself better and whatever happens, happens," said the 6-foot-3 Bates, who notes he's gained "10 to 15 pounds" to weigh 232 heading into pre-season camp next week. "If people get moved around, they get moved around. It's all about what I can do to improve myself and my abilities in the weight room, in the classroom, and everything so that I have that chance to play and help the team. …
"There's definitely those few goals that every player sets himself out for, you know to play early and have all these things, but it's really about what I can do to help the team, help the each other and be the best teammate that I can be to have the overarching goal for everybody."
The kid who arrives at Tennessee with more than 300 career tackles at the high school level; who recalls playing tackle football as early as age "6 or 7"; who remembers wanting to break down football film as early as middle school stands about as good a chance as any Vol rookie to impact immediately.
"I'd say about middle school [is when film breakdown began]. Just kind of watching football with my dad, just in the family room, he would be kind of pointing out these different things that you kind of looked for," Bates explained. "And he would always say, whenever you get older you'll start watching film. And I always wanted to do that like now. I wanted to look at film, wanted to learn the game, learn different coverages. Because I didn't really have that big of a grasp on it. It was still kind of just running a game and kind of being told what to do all the time.
"So I wanted to know by myself."
Now, Bates knows. He's been working for this moment officially since arriving in Knoxville in late-May; unofficially since attending a Vols-UNLV game in his youth that still presents vivid memories. Before Knoxville this spring, he talks of working out both with and under the direction of his father as well as his Jacksonville-area supporters.
He doesn't say it, but Bates sounds like a "One Tennessee" sound-byte in addressing what rests ahead.
"It's everybody's goal to bring back Tennessee to where it's supposed to be, and it will happen," Bates said. "It's just a matter of time of us getting together and us doing everything that we can to help us this season. And taking one day at a time; not looking about the past or past seasons. It's all just about what we can do right now to bring us back to where we're supposed to be."