KNOXVILLE — It all started more than a dozen years ago for Dillon Bates.
The Tennessee freshman linebacker was 6 or 7 years old, he recalled Friday afternoon, when he began playing tackle football.
"The mighty-mite leagues," Bates said as the Volunteers debuted their six legacy freshmen. "You know, the big ol' helmets and big ol' shoulder pads, running around not knowing what you're supposed to do."
Though he's not been on campus long and won't have his first college practice until August, Bates already has shown he's got a pretty good grasp on the game for a 19-year-old newcomer.
The Vols likely will need the 6-foot-3, 232-pound son of former Tennessee and Dallas Cowboys safety Bill Bates to be one of a handful of immediate-impact freshmen.
"I don't remember a time where I didn't know football," he said.
"Growing up with football 24-7, talking to my dad -- that's the greatest resource I can pretty much ask for -- and talking to him every day has really helped me in understanding the game and understanding the different coverages and different assignments that I'll need to know. It's been a great help having him for advice, so that's really helped my game."
A consensus four-star prospect out of Ponte Vedra High School near Jacksonville, Fla.,, Bates remembers watching games with his dad, who was part of three Super Bowl teams with Dallas during a 15-year career, and listening to him point out nuances of the game.
Dillon was a middle schooler at the time.
"He'd always say, 'Whenever you get older, you'll start watching film.' I always wanted to do that, like, now," he said. "I wanted to look at film. I wanted to learn the game. I wanted to learn different coverages.
"I didn't really have that big of a grasp of it. It was still just really run-in-a-game-being-told-what-to-do all the time. I wanted to know by myself."
After signing with the Vols in February, Bates worked with some trainers doing on-field drills, and his dad would conduct workouts for him and occasionally join the training sessions.
As he prepared to move to Knoxville earlier this summer, Bates leaned on his older brothers for insight. Graham played defensive back at Arkansas State until 2011. Hunter, a safety, wrapped up his career at Northwestern in 2012.
"I could go to them for advice on what to expect my first few times being here and what to expect my freshman year," Dillon said, "so I knew what I was looking at when I was going to be coming here, and I knew how to prepare myself."
The feeling around Tennessee's program is that Bates did pretty well in that regard.
"Dillon came in and started working hard right from the beginning like he should," All-SEC senior linebacker A.J. Johnson said Tuesday at SEC media days. "He's good, and all the freshman are working because they know there will be chances [to play]."
Tennessee has an entire defensive line to replace heading into the season, but the Vols have question marks at linebacker, too, particularly beyond Johnson and promising sophomore Jalen Reeves-Maybin.
Four players, including Dontavis Sapp, the team's third-leading tackler in 2013, graduated, and Christian Harris transferred to Division II Grand Valley State.
Curt Maggitt will play almost exclusively at defensive end now, and two players signed as linebackers -- Corey Vereen in 2013 and Jakob Johnson, a 2014 recruit who enrolled in January -- are with Maggitt at end. Kenny Bynum and Justin King have made little impact in their careers to this point, and Bates is the standout among freshmen Gavin Bryant and Neiko Creamer, who moved to the position in spring practice.
But Bates is not worried about a starting spot just yet.
"I can't really control that much," he said. "It's all about what I can do to make myself better, and whatever happens happens. If people get moved around, they get moved around.
"It's all about what I can do to better myself and improve my abilities in the weight room and the classroom and everything so you have that chance to play and help the team."
Bates and the rest of the Vols' touted 2014 class have bigger dreams than just helping the Vols.
The aspirations are much higher, as is the confidence.
"It's everybody's goal to bring Tennessee back to where it's supposed to be," Bates said. "It will happen. It's just a matter of time of us getting together and us doing everything we can to help us this season and taking one day at a time [and] not looking at the past.
"It's thinking about what we can do right now to bring us back to where we're supposed to be."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Patrick Brown has been the University of Tennessee beat writer since January 2011. A native of Memphis, Brown graduated from UT in May of 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism/Electronic Media and worked at the Knoxville News Sentinel for two years on the sports editorial staff and as a freelance contributor. If it’s the NBA, the NFL or SEC football and basketball, he’s probably reading about it or watching it on TV. Contact him ...