Safety Jessie Bates is far from the first player to fly in under the radar only to attain great heights during his football career at Wake Forest.
The big surprise is how fast Bates’ career trajectory began spiking toward the stratosphere.
Spurned by every college program other than Toledo, Ball State, Iowa and Wake Forest, Bates needed only nine games of his redshirt freshman season to rank second in the ACC with five interceptions. He’s also second on the Deacons with 63 tackles and is set to start for the eighth time this season Saturday at Louisville.
With redshirt senior Ryan Janvion ruled out of the game with an injured toe and redshirt sophomore Cameron Glenn questionable because of a shoulder injury, Bates may well be the only player in Wake Forest’s regular rotation at safety available to face the Cardinals and dynamic quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Coach Dave Clawson said the bottom line is not that he and his staff saw something in players like Bates that others did not, but that they knew they had to if the Deacons were ever going to be good.
Ready-made players rarely pick Wake Forest.
“People say it’s bad to say it, (but) we are a developmental program,’’ Clawson said. “That’s our sweet spot, guys like Jessie Bates. Guys like (defensive end) Duke Ejiofor. Guys like (linebacker) Marquel Lee.
“Our hit ratio on developing those guys has to be really high here.”
The Jessie Bates that Wake Forest began recruiting during his career at Snider High School in Fort Wayne, Ind., was 6-2, 185 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds. Today, he weighs 200 pounds and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds.
The Jessie Bates that Wake Forest began recruiting had already committed to Toledo, and was pretty determined to follow through on his promise to play for Matt Campbell and the Rockets.
“I didn’t think I was going to decommit,” Bates recalled. “I can’t even lie. Me and my mom were set on Toledo.”
Clawson said there’s a simple reason Bates was underrated by those who follow college recruiting.
“The players that get a very high rating are guys who go to the camps,’’ Clawson said. “Jessie played football, he played baseball, he played basketball. He was a three-sport athlete, so he didn’t get all the recruiting attention that just a football player would get who goes to every one of those different combines.
“We saw a guy who had a great senior year, who was a great basketball player, who was a really good baseball player. Sometimes those guys become the best football players because, once they get to college and just focus on football, their improvement is really good.”
Only after two other recruits chose not to honor their earlier commitments did the Deacons even have a scholarship to offer Bates. By then, defensive coordinator Mike Elko was hot on Bates’ trail, and traveled to Fort Wayne to try to convince Bates and his mother to make a recruiting visit to Wake Forest.
Iowa also offered late, making it a tough decision for Bates and his mother, Theresa Ladd, to travel to Iowa City or Winston-Salem. When they did begin the drive south, through a snow storm, they followed Interstates 75, 64 and 77 into North Carolina.
Clawson has said he wasn’t certain Bates was going to show up until the moment he arrived.
“My mom wasn’t sure if we wanted to (visit) or not,” Bates said. “We were pretty fully committed to Toledo. I had a really good relationship with Campbell, and I felt I had my mind made up with Toledo.
“(Wake Forest) did a good job of recruiting and getting me down here. And I committed.”
He bonded immediately with Glenn, who he describes as one of his best friends. But he also weighed the difference between playing in the Mid-American Conference and the ACC.
“(It was) just getting around all of the freshmen then, and just understanding the opportunity that it was, to play in the ACC and play against the bigger schools,” Bates said. “It was a better opportunity and I felt like, education-wise, if I had a Toledo degree or a Wake Forest degree, they would take the Wake Forest degree other than the Toledo degree.”
Since the ACC began naming the Defensive Rookie of the Year, Merrill Noel, in 2011, has been the only player from Wake Forest to win the award. Bates moved into strong contention last Saturday when he made two plays that decided the 27-20 victory over Virginia. On the first, he deflected a pass that his buddy Glenn picked off and returned 41 yards to set up a game-tying field goal. On the second, he picked off a pass and bolted 39 yards for the game-winning touchdown.
He’s no longer under the radar, but he’ll long remember a time when he was.