MONTGOMERY — Onterio McCalebb caught a screen pass to the left side and was almost immediately engulfed by tacklers, among them his former teammate Daren Bates, who swarmed the 5-10 former Auburn running back and kick returner like sharks sniffing chum in the water. Bates was particularly fired up after the play, which came during Monday afternoon’s practice at Cramton Bowl for this weekend’s Raycom College Football All-Star Classic.
“You got to have fun out here,” Bates said. “I want to be that type of guy that everybody looks at me and be like ‘OK he’s a fun player, he likes to get out there and play and have fun while he’s doing it.’”
It was a joy Bates rarely got to show at Auburn this season as the Tigers went 3-9 including 0-8 in SEC play, the worst season in 60 years for the program which ended with Gene Chizik’s firing less than two years removed from the BCS National Championship.
“I think that was the worst point I ever seen, that was the worst team stats-wise I’ve ever been on,” said Bates, who led Auburn with 94 tackles and had two sacks and an interception.
“It’s still my teammates, still my team, still my family, still my friends, so I’m going to keep on fighting and
learn that at the lowest point you’ve still got to keep on fighting.”
Bates, McCalebb and offensive guard John Sullen will represent Auburn as members of the Stars team during Saturday’s all-star game, each with their eyes set on showcasing their talents for NFL scouts and for putting what was a dismal season on the Plains behind them.
The 5-11 Bates is also trying to transition back to playing safety, which he played during his freshman year at Auburn. He practiced as the weakside linebacker on Monday, the position he started every game for Auburn this season.
“They have me as a linebacker so I’ll get out here, play linebacker and show my talents anyway I can but I’m trying to train as a safety,” said Bates, who has been training at Michael Johnson Performance in McKinney, Texas. “My love has always been safety, being back, coming downhill, my type of position.
“I think it gives me a greater chance (to play in the NFL). … I’m excited; I’ve been waiting three years to get back at safety. I’ll do whatever it takes to get back there and play at the next level.”
Whether he makes it to the next level or not, one thing Bates said he benefitted from was the coaching of former Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder this past season. The former Atlanta Falcons defensive coordinator has yet to accept a new position though he has been rumored to be connected to at least one college coordinator job.
“That helped me out a lot because yesterday we were going through the meeting, he had the same terminology as these coaches,” Bates said of VanGorder, whose defense ranked at or near the bottom of the SEC in several categories. “Each NFL scout I’ve talked to, they have the same terminology that he has. It was great being able to work with him. I wish I could have done it for four years being able to pick up on NFL lingo like he has and that he has been accustomed to.”
Sullen was one of three offensive players along with wide receiver Emory Blake and fellow guard Chad Slade to start every game for Auburn this season. The Tigers offensive line allowed 37 sacks, ranking worst in the SEC and tied for 109th nationally with 3.08 per game.
“I can’t say that it was just the rest of the team,” said the 6-5, 313-pound Sullen.”I do want to show (scouts) that I’m able to play and able to play at the level that they expect me to be able to play at.”
Sullen is looking forward to paving the way for the shifty 5-11 McCalebb one more time.
“It’s a exciting being able to pancake again for Onterio,” he said.
McCalebb had 94 carries for 570 yards with six touchdowns and 18 receptions for 132 yards in addition to his 23 kick returns for 523 yards with a touchdown this season. He became just the second player in SEC history to have more than 2,000 rushing yards (2,586), 1,000 kick return yards (1,360) and 500 receiving yards (620) in his career.
The Fort Meade, Fla. native played in last weekend’s Casino Del Sol All-Star Game and had seven carries for 38 yards and a 16-yard reception.
“I did very good there and I stood out in a lot of scout’s eyes,” McCalebb said. “They really didn’t believe that I was that fast – I had to show them.”
His speed and versatility is what defines McCalebb, who said a team should draft him because he’s a “special player.”
“I think it’s a great opportunity to come out here and show my skills,” he said, “and put on the Auburn helmet one more time.”