TAMPA, FLA. – Rashod Bateman, the Big Ten Receiver of the Year and holder of the Gophers single-season receiving yards record at 1,170, taps into an unexpected source to feed his immeasurable talent:
The chain restaurant specializing in chicken is found in 17 southern states, including Bateman's native Georgia. The sophomore ate there when home for a short holiday break. And he has already been several times in Tampa, with a location just a couple miles from the team's Outback Bowl hotel.
He has become the leader of a movement, trying to convince his Midwestern teammates to forsake Raising Cane's and convert to the Zaxby's faithful. As Bateman said, Zaxby's has more options: tenders, sandwiches, wings, various sauces and sides, even salads. Cane's keeps it simple with only tenders, toast, coleslaw, fries and one sauce. But the Gophers aren't just going for a taste of various fried food options — they're hoping for a sampling of Bateman's skill.
"A lot of them tell me that's where I get my superpowers from," Bateman said. "So everybody is trying to go to Zaxby's right now."
With the No. 18 Gophers playing No. 12 Auburn on Wednesday, Bateman should be in peak form against the Tigers, considering the place he derives his power from is so close. He will look to add on to his yardage record as well as match Tyler Johnson's 12-touchdown mark from last season.
Johnson might actually be another secret to Bateman's success and vice versa. Johnson has 1,114 yards and 11 touchdowns this season. The senior needs only 19 yards and one touchdown to become the all-time Gophers receiving leader in both categories.
Having Johnson to play alongside has benefited Bateman. When teams double-teamed Johnson, Bateman punished the oversight. Trying to cover both of them at the same time was a fruitless endeavor. Bateman can bend around any defender to make athletic, improbable catches, sometimes with one hand. Johnson is a devious route-runner, often leaving defenders on their heels.
"It balances a lot of things out. Teams just can't sit on one side," Johnson said. "… So being able to just have that all around in a receiver core is just very, very special. … You know that other guys on the outside of me as well can make plays, which is very exciting to see. Every time I see them make plays, I'm just happy."
Bateman said he has already thought about the prospect of playing without Johnson next season a little bit. It certainly will be a different dynamic for him, with defenses keying on mainly him. But he added he isn't worried about all the extra attention.
"You know if they take me away, then I've got Chris Autman-Bell, I've got Demetrius [Douglas], I've got Michael Brown-Stephens. So somebody else is going to be open," Bateman said. "And I know what I can do, they can do it just like me or even better. I know they got the ability, the athletic ability, to get the job done, too."
Well, especially if they have been accompanying Bateman for meals at Zaxby's.
Bateman said Johnson was thinking about trying it out despite having his own favorite chicken wing spot back home in north Minneapolis. Winston DeLattiboudere already has been, even going so far as to accuse road roommate and fellow defensive end Tai'yon Devers of eating there without him once after seeing an empty carton in their room.
"Ubers pulling up, one behind another, to get to Zaxby's," DeLattiboudere said, "because everybody wanted to see what the big deal is about."
Some teammates have had the audacity to say they think the crispy chicken is just OK, to which Bateman responds they need to go to a Zaxby's in Georgia, which is even better than the Florida outpost, apparently.
Wednesday's Outback Bowl might be the ultimate test to see if this chicken really does possess some football-enhancing magic, or if it's simply Bateman's favorite food. DeLattiboudere, at least, seemed skeptical, laughing when he heard the theory.
"Maybe he's setting somethings up for the future," DeLattiboudere joked.
Bateman has at least one more year with the Gophers before becoming a likely high NFL draft pick. But his potential first sponsor as a pro athlete, not too hard to guess.