This school year, wide receiver Rashod Bateman is rooming with three teammates who also joined the Gophers last season: quarterback Zack Annexstad and offensive linemen Daniel Faalele and Curtis Dunlap Jr.
Considering Annexstad and Bateman’s combined weight is only one book-stuffed backpack more than Faalele alone, Bateman’s feeling pretty comfortable with his surroundings.
“We’ll be well-protected,” joked Bateman, a 6-2 Georgia native who set freshman records while starting every game last season.
While it’s in offensive linemen’s nature to guard their teammates, Bateman shouldn’t overlook his own contribution to defending their home, should the place somehow come under siege. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck has touted the sophomore’s physical transformation all offseason.
Bateman said when he arrived on campus a year ago he weighed 173 pounds. The roster currently lists him at 210 pounds, though he put himself more around 201 pounds at the start of camp.
How he managed to put on about 30 pounds was a pretty simple formula: Stay in the weight room, rework his diet. The latter was what he had to change “a lot.”
“I wasn’t eating too healthy before,” Bateman said. “Just, like, a lot of fried food. I never ate salad.”
Greens and protein shakes seem to be the substitutes now for Bateman’s crunchy cravings. And it has Fleck, a former receiver himself, fired up for a follow-up to a strong freshman campaign, when Bateman set first-year school records of 51 catches and 704 receiving yards, along with his six touchdowns.
He’s paired with senior receiver Tyler Johnson, a receiving corps that has engineered much hype for 2019.
“Everybody talks about Tyler, but we’re talking about — Rashod Bateman set every Minnesota freshman record there was, and now he’s 200 pounds,” Fleck said. “And you’re talking about maybe one of the best and most prolific wide receivers in the country [in Johnson, who’s] going to be just like Corey Davis was. They have very similar skill sets.”
Davis played receiver under Fleck at Western Michigan and blossomed into a Tennessee Titans first-round draft pick, No. 5 overall. Johnson and Bateman are both NFL prospects, but Fleck said competition has never strained their relationship.
“Rashod is going to be an amazing player,” Johnson said. “He has a lot of growth to do, but I’m on his side for it all. But I’m excited for him, excited for what he has to come. I like playing alongside with him. I just feel like a lot of good things are happening, so me being able to be there with him, going through it with him, is always good.”
Bateman said for this upcoming season he feels like he’s taken his game to an even higher level and is an all-around better player. The game doesn’t move as fast for him anymore, and he has a better command of the playbook.
Sophomore receiver Chris Autman-Bell called Bateman his “little brother,” who is goofy and hilarious. He said Bateman and the other receivers are always laughing and having fun during training camp to keep the intensity from becoming draining.
When Bateman isn’t joking about his roommates’ size, he’s chiding them for not giving him the memo when it came time to pick a high school.
Annexstad, Faalele and Dunlap all attended the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Bateman, though, was busy making a name for himself at Tift County High School.
Fleck actually received a commitment from the four-star recruit ahead of his stellar senior year despite reported offers pouring in from such programs as Ole Miss and Georgia.
Now, there’s a bit of a pipeline from the southern state to the North.
“When you’re down south and you hear Minnesota, you just think about cold,” Bateman said. “But when you actually get up here and visit, you realize it’s a really nice place to be, and it’s fun place to be. And once you get into these coaching staffs and get around the facility, it’s kind of hard to say no here.”
The decision ultimately led Bateman to develop a close bond with Annexstad, his “brother from another mother.” The pair even has a reputation on the team for great fashion sense.
But whether for his shoe game or his football game, Bateman’s definitely drawing attention.
“You see his film back in high school, you could see he’s special,” Autman-Bell said. “So soon as he got here, we got to work immediately.”