When the Gophers take on Nebraska this Saturday, they'll be without more than 20 players who recently tested positive for COVID-19.
And that's not even counting one very glaring absence in receiver Rashod Bateman.
The projected first-round NFL draft pick opted out, then in, then out again, most recently moving on from the team shortly after the Gophers paused team activities in an outbreak that would peak at 49 cases. The reigning Big Ten Receiver of the Year led the team through five games with 472 yards from 36 catches with two touchdowns.
Bateman initially opted out in August, only returning to the team after the Big Ten reinstated the season in September. But that about-six-week absence gave offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. some time to game-plan for life without Bateman, something he's picked back up on in the past two weeks.
Sanford said Thursday he felt this recent break from playing games, while unplanned, helped him evaluate his offense and realize some oft-unused talent could be ready to step up in Bateman's stead.
"That's going to be exciting to watch these guys go ahead and do what they need to do. And I love where the receiver group is at," Sanford said. "To me, you've got the chance to see the development that [receivers coach] Matt Simon has put into that group, which is phenomenal. Because I think that it's going to be more of a multiple group, if you will. And obviously, a little bit less going toward a true first-round type talent, where you'd be remiss if you didn't target him 12 to 15 times a game."
Beyond Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell and Daniel Jackson have been the other starting receivers. Autman-Bell, a junior, has made 14 catches for 315 yards and a score while Jackson, a true freshman, has caught five passes for 57 yards. Redshirt freshman Mike Brown-Stephens could see more action at the No. 3 position, though Seth Green and Clay Geary have also been infrequent targets. Sanford has even worked in the running backs and tight ends into the passing game, albeit fairly sparingly.
"Everybody in that room is grinding and getting better every day, whether they are a fifth-year senior or a true freshman," quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "They are working together and ready for an opportunity if their number is called."
Autman-Bell certainly is and was well before Bateman's departure.
"Nothing changes. I've still got to be the same person I am," he said. " … I've got to be a superhero, be Chris Autman-Bell and go make plays."
The Gophers added a preferred walk-on to their 2021 class in Chanhassen linebacker Eli Mau, 6-2, 225 pounds. The 17 members of the Gophers recruiting class are expected to officially sign this coming Wednesday.