One by one, they tried to lure Rashod Bateman.
Tennessee on Dec. 10. SEC champion and playoff-bound Georgia with coach Kirby Smart on Dec. 11. South Carolina on that same day. And Texas A&M a week later.
All those Southeastern Conference teams tried to get Bateman, a four-star wide receiver from Tift County High School in Tifton, Ga., to break the verbal commitment he gave to coach P.J. Fleck and the Gophers in June and stay in the South.
Bateman didn’t waver, and shortly after 6 a.m. Wednesday as the new, three-day early signing period began, he was the key among 26 players who signed national letters of intent to play for Minnesota.
Bateman’s signing helped the Gophers complete a Class of 2018 that recruiting-focused website 247Sports.com ranked 30th nationally in its composite of major media recruiting services. That’s the highest ranking for Minnesota since the 2008 class finished 26th. In addition, Fleck’s second class as Gophers coach — and his first with a full season to recruit — was even higher in some rankings, with ESPN.com and 247Sports’ own rankings putting the Gophers at No. 22, both highs for the program.
The Gophers also ranked sixth among Big Ten teams, and first in the conference’s West Division for the first time. Because the early signing period runs through Friday and the traditional signing period starts Feb. 7, the rankings could change.
“This is a very historic class at the University of Minnesota,” Fleck said.
Keeping Bateman was important. The 6-1, 185-pounder caught 83 passes for 1,539 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior, bumping his status from three-star to four-star. The SEC suitors soon followed.
“I’ve never seen anybody with that many offers and offers in that state and around that state in the South give up that to come up all the way here in the Twin Cities,” Fleck said. “That’s special.”
Fleck constantly was concerned about losing Bateman, but the player tried to reassure him. “If you ask him, we had nothing to worry about. If you ask me, it was constant panic,” Fleck said. “… At some point, he got to us and said, ‘Coach, for the 15th time, I’m not going anywhere.’ ”
Bateman, however, wasn’t the only highly regarded player in the Gophers’ class. They also signed four-star offensive guard Curtis Dunlap Jr. and 6-9, 400-pound three-star offensive tackle Daniel Faalele, both of IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. In addition, Fleck signed a pair of California junior college players who quickly could pay dividends: quarterback Vic Viramontes from Riverside City College and offensive tackle Jason Dickson of Diablo Valley College.
Also intriguing is IMG Academy quarterback Zack Annexstad, who transferred from Mankato West after his sophomore season and signed with the Gophers as a preferred walk-on even though he had scholarship offers from Pittsburgh and Cincinnati. He was the only non-scholarship player among the 26 the Gophers signed Wednesday.
Though 15 of the signees were on offense, Minnesota didn’t ignore defense, landing 11 players. Included were defensive end Alex Reigelsperger of Huber Heights, Ohio, and speedy cornerback Terell Smith of Snellville, Ga.
The Gophers signed four Minnesotans — St. Cloud Tech tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford, Eden Prairie cornerback Benny Sapp III, Lakeville North center Nathan Boe and St. Paul Highland Park athlete Josh Aune. One Minnesotan who was expected to sign, Perham defensive tackle Logan Richter, announced via Twitter that he is “grayshirting,” meaning he remains committed to the Gophers but will enroll in January 2019.
The whirlwind day for the Gophers began at 6 a.m. Central, when players in the Eastern time zone began sending in their letters of intent. The flurry ended by 9:15 a.m., when the two Californians signed after 7 Pacific time. Fleck then could breathe a sigh of relief.
“We didn’t have anybody flip, we didn’t have anybody say, ‘Well, I want to wait,’ ” he said. “They all wanted to be a Gopher at 7:01 a.m.”