Aug 28, 2013
Gage Batten was making a big move at linebacker before he was moved to H-back
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. – Gage Batten always knew he belonged. He knew it even when he didn’t get the scholarship offers for which he’d worked so hard. He knew last season when he was a walk-on Auburn linebacker.
Batten was on his way to Yale after he graduated from Dwyer High School in West Palm Beach. But something just didn’t feel right. And that’s why he ended up at Auburn instead.
“I’ve always wanted to play in the SEC,” Batten says. “I’d rather find out what I have against the best people in the nation than to play in the Ivy League and always wonder whether or not I had what it takes. I figured I’d just give it my best shot.”
Batten was an immediate strength and conditioning standout. And by the end his first spring practice, he was pushing to get into the playing rotation at linebacker. That was Batten’s mission until shortly before the start of preseason camp when he was moved to H-back.
Saturday night, when Auburn opens its season against Washington State at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Gage will be senior H-back Jay Prosch’s backup. He has already been labeled the heir apparent.
“I guess they liked my toughness,” says Batten, 6-feet and 242 pounds. “It was a learning experience the first week or so. Having Jay to learn from was pretty good. I felt like by the second week I’d really picked it up and come on at the position. I’d picked up the blocking angles and catching routes and stuff.
“I never really played offense in high school, so it was new to me. Physicality is my thing. It was always my thing as a linebacker. I feel like I was able to carry a lot of that over.”
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn says Batten made an impression with his work off the field before he made an impression on the field.
“He is a great worker,” Malzahn says. “I know in the weight room he has a great reputation. In the spring, he was hard-nosed. He was very physical, and he had great effort. He was playing linebacker, and he was just one of the guys. We felt like we had a need at fullback. Jay has kind of taken him under his wing, and he has done a solid job. He has a chance to have a solid future at that position.”
Batten was a freshman at King’s Academy in West Palm Beach when a chance meeting literally changed his life. After a basketball game, he had a conversation with King’s Academy alumnus and former standout Auburn and NFL fullback Heath Evans.
A friendship was born that is strong still today. Batten and Evans talk by phone every day.
“He’s pretty much been my big brother figure,” Batten says. “We are so close sometimes I forget he’s not my brother. We work out together. I lived with him while he was in New Orleans. I watch his kids sometimes. He’s been like my real big brother.”
Not many football players have big brothers like Evans. At Auburn, Evans endured his own hard times only to become one of the nation’s top fullbacks and go on to a long and successful NFL career.
“Mentally, being a ninth-grader and having an NFL guy work out with you put me ahead of the game,” Batten says. “I was just trying to keep up with him at first, and then I went out there and beat him one time. It just blew open and we were competing every day.
“It was a lot of fun. Different NFL guys were on vacation and would come in. I worked out with a lot of different guys. Anybody who has actually been there and done the NFL, there is obviously lots of stuff you can learn from them.”
And now Batten plays the same position at which Evans thrived.
“He still swears to this day he was a tailback,” Batten says, laughing. “It’s been nice to be able to call him up, because we have the same body type, same explosion, same everything. He’s pretty much the same athlete I am, so it’s nice to hear his perspective.”
Evans saw a young man whose eagerness and desire stood out. Batten worked tirelessly on the field, off the field, in the classroom, everywhere. Evans offered to help him, with one condition. If Batten ever backed off and gave less than his best, he’d need to find someone else.
Batten readily agreed to that stipulation.
"I write out a diet, he sticks with it down to the single calorie,” Evans told The Palm Beach Post. “I write a workout plan, he sticks with it to the last sit-up, the last triceps extension. He doesn't skip a beat.
"I make this kid eat stuff that would make a Billy goat puke. I put him through workouts that you could get probably less than 20 NFL players to do."
After his junior season at King’s Academy, Batten decided to transfer to Dwyer for his senior season. He planned to attend camps at his favorite schools in the summer of 2011. But a serious ankle injury kept him spoiled his summer, and the scholarship offers he anticipated never came.
Evans still can’t figure it out.
“He’s hands-down the most gifted high school player I’ve ever worked with,” Evans said.
Batten sat beside Julian Whigham, his best friend since they were 5 years old, as Whigham signed with Syracuse. There was no signing for Batten to do on national signing day, but once he visited Auburn, he knew where he would play college football.
“I’ve always admired Auburn,” Batten says. “I admired Auburn from afar, but I never knew that much about it. Then when I saw the Auburn Creed and the idea of the Auburn Man, I knew that was the same ideals I have lived by my whole life. That was really me.”
Batten moved to Auburn in the summer of 2012 and went to work. It’s the way he was taught by his father, Greg, and his mother, Ann Marie. A math and science major on a pre-medicine track, he enrolled in Auburn’s prestigious Honors College. In offseason workouts with strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell and on the practice field, he quickly showed he was no ordinary walk-on.
“I just feel like I have a ridiculous work ethic,” Batten says. “I just keep on pushing, keep sawing wood. A lot of people think me coming up the depth chart like that was a surprise, but Coach Russell will tell you and I knew it was just a matter of time. There was never a doubt in my mind. It was just whether it would be the first year or the second year.”
Batten chose Auburn after talking with former head coach Gene Chizik and former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. After a 3-9 season, everything changed. Batten pushed on, as determined as ever. Being a walk-on was not the path he hoped to follow, but he says he has no regrets as his first game nears.
“Obviously, it was a disappointment, but looking back, going through the walk-on experience last year I learned a lot about myself and what I can actually go through,” Batten says. I wouldn’t change it.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: