Former Illinois head coach Ron Zook had some serious recruiting pull in the south, dating back to his days as head coach of the Florida Gators. Zook’s main talent pipeline from SEC country brought many memorable players to Champaign, including a linebacker recruit from Covington, Louisiana named Houston Bates in the class of 2010. Bates was one of the top-ranked recruits from the class, alongside Jonathan Brown and Earnest Thomas.
After redshirting the 2010 campaign, Bates came out on fire in 2011. He earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors in Illinois’ non-conference matchup with Arkansas State, posting five tackles, two TFLs (one sack), and a fumble recovery during the game. The rest of the season was slower for Bates, but he still played a key role in Vic Koenning’s defense, as he made appearances in all twelve regular season games as well as the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against the UCLA Bruins.
Tim Beckman’s inaugural season in 2012 was difficult for everyone around the program, and Bates was no exception. He initially played linebacker in Tim Banks’ new defense, and he was limited to only 18 tackles, a forced fumble, and a fumble recovery in an injury-shortened season.
The 2013 season launched Bates’ status as a legitimate major conference talent. Bates was moved over to the LEO position (LB/DL hybrid) in 2013, foreshadowing his eventual success as a defensive lineman later in his career. Bates started all twelve games that season and made 40 tackles, including 12 TFLs and 3.5 sacks, along with two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, and a safety. These accolades earned him All-Big Ten Honorable Mention recognition by the media.
Bates was poised to become a centerpiece of the 2014 defense, which was ready to finally come together in Beckman’s third season at the helm. But that was not to be, as Bates decided to forego his senior season at Illinois and transfer to be closer to his family in Louisiana. He eventually decided to suit up for the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs, a team which had soundly beaten the Illini 52-24 during the 2012 season. Louisiana Tech defensive coordinator Manny Diaz also moved Bates to defensive end for the 2014 season.
Illinois missed out on some serious production in 2014, as Bates continued to build on his already impressive 2013 output, recording 42 tackles including 16 TFLs and 10 sacks along with an interception over 14 games.
The final game of Bates’ career was without question the best game of his career, trouncing his former Illini teammates in the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl. In that game alone, Bates posted an incredible 5.5 TFLs, including 4.5 sacks of Illini quarterback Reilly O’Toole. Bates was easily voted the game MVP, as he led the Bulldogs to a 35-18 thrashing of the Illini.
Illinois was hot coming into that game as well, having won three of its last five games and defeating Minnesota, Penn State, and Northwestern along the way. The dual-threat abilities of Reilly O’Toole had proven to be more effective than Wes Lunt’s pocket passing down stretch, and the Illini finally seemed to have an offensive rhythm going between O’Toole and freshman star Mike Dudek. But none of that mattered when Houston Bates met up with his former teammates in Dallas and seemingly single-handedly shut down Illinois’ hopes for its first bowl victory since 2011.
The buildup to the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl was one of the last times I was able to be legitimately excited for Illinois football due to on-field success. To see it come crashing down at the hands of a former Illini was devastating for the fanbase. As we know all too well, not much improved on or off the field immediately after that season, and five years later, the Illini are still searching for another bowl bid to put memories of that disastrous Heart of Dallas Bowl to rest.
Of course, I have nothing but respect for Houston Bates. He made a choice that was the best for him and his family, and he developed into a great player. Bates later signed with the Washington Redskins as an undrafted free agent in 2015, and played off and on with them through the 2016 season.
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