Midway through the fourth quarter of the TicketCity Bowl, Bates suffered a broken leg and was taken off the field in an ambulance. He spent the entire offseason rehabilitating the injury and working to get back on the field.
Through the long rehab process, Bates turned to his family for guidance. His father, Bill, played football at Tennessee and went on to play 15 years with the Dallas Cowboys, but battled injuries during his career. Hunter's brother, Graham, plays football at Arkansas State but missed time with a broken foot.
Both brother and father were a source of advice and encouragement during his long, strenuous recovery.
"I talked to (Graham), just about the ups and downs he went through," said Hunter. "My dad went through injuries so he gave me encouragement, little details about keeping my head up."
Bates missed the entire spring while rehabbing his leg. Just a few months later, the leg was feeling better and Bates was getting back into football shape.
"Midway through the summer, I felt good cutting and felt good running," said Bates. "Coming back out here, things get sore, but that's camp, it's a grind. Things are feeling really good right now."
On Monday afternoon, after a long, eager wait, Bates rejoined his teammates returned to football.
"I think that's the longest I've ever been without football," said Bates. "It's a lot of fun getting back out there."
Bates is being very careful with his recovered right leg, which he admits is still sore on occasion.
"Things are coming back….slowly, but they're coming back," said Bates.
As a junior in 2010, Bates recorded 45 tackles and intercepted two passes. He saw playing time at safety—including in nickel packages—and also served as a key player on special teams. Bates was putting together a career game in the TicketCity Bowl before his injury occurred.
This season, Bates finds himself in the middle of a competition. Bates joins Brian Peters, David Arnold, Ibraheim Campbell, and Jared Carpenter in a battle for roles on the defense. Of course, Bates knows first-hand that injuries can change up the depth chart.
"You've got to fight for a job, you've got to be ready to be that next guy, because you never know," said Bates. "You're one play away every snap. You've got to prepare like you're the starter and prepare like you're the guy and if you get that shot, you've got to be that guy."
For Hunter, the product of a football family, being back around the game is enough to be excited about.
"It's great to be back out with my teammates and running around," said Bates. "Things are coming back, I'm feeling good, and it's fun to be out there."