Rashod Bateman is the most talented young receiver in the country, and while he only had two receptions for 22 yards last year at Wisconsin, he will have to have a big day Saturday if the Gophers are to top the Badgers and reach the Big Ten championship game.
Bateman is a sophomore from Tift County High School in Tifton, Ga. His prep coach, Ashley Anders, said that the receiver’s success wasn’t the kind of thing you could predict.
“I’ve seen guys at this level where you don’t think they’re ever going to play for you at all and they end up becoming good players, maybe not college-level players but really, really good high school football players,” Anders said. “Then you have those kids like Rashod who you’re predicting them to be really good high school players and then when they get to the next level they just kind of explode. I think that’s what Rashod has done.”
Yes, Bateman was a late bloomer. After his senior season he stuck to his Gophers commitment, even after schools such as Tennessee, Georgia and Texas A&M came after him.
“You know he was a gradual player — I don’t know if that makes sense — but when he was really young in middle school, you knew he had some ability, but he just kind of got better and better every year,” Anders said. “He didn’t put up the numbers as a junior like he did as a senior. Probably toward the end of his senior year he was leading the state of Georgia in receiving. I think that’s when he really kind of took off.”
Still, Anders said it was Bateman’s decision to stick with the Gophers that proved what kind of a young man he was.
“I have the most respect in the world for Rashod because he committed and he understands and knows what commitment means,” Anders said. “He held his guns. That’s one reason why I think he is having such a great career at Minnesota.”
The Gophers have 12 players on the roster from Georgia and another three committed for next year. Anders broke down what makes prep football in the Peach State so special.
“You know there’s a lot of the high schools where there’s only one high school in the county,” he said. “It’s almost kind of like our county against your county. There’s a lot of rivalry between the south Georgia schools and the kids buy into that, the community buys into that.
“I mean our stadium holds 12,000. You have a good game slated on the schedule and they’re going to come. It’s a great atmosphere and I think the kids want to play in that atmosphere.”
Before taking over at Tift County, Anders was a defensive coordinator at Murray State and had coached under Tommy Tuberville at Auburn, so he understands how hard it can be to hit on the right prospect.
He praised Gophers coach P.J. Fleck and his staff for believing in Bateman.
“Coach Fleck set up a home visit with Rashod and his mom and when he came down I think he brought like seven coaches with him,” Anders said. “I thought that was very impressive of him to pull that many coaches off the road to come see one guy. I was very impressed with that.”
He added that seeing a player such as Bateman succeed is one of the highlights of being a prep coach.
“Oh, it’s awesome. It’s awesome. The one good thing is there’s probably more Minnesota fans in Tift County right now than there has ever been in the history of football,” Anders said. “Not just Tift County but south Georgia as a whole, they pull for Rashod. They know how good he was in high school and they want to see him do well just for south Georgia.
“It is awesome. I couldn’t be prouder of him. We’ll have [college players] in the future and for me it doesn’t really matter for a kid if it’s Big Ten, Big 12, SEC, if he gets the opportunity to continue his playing career in college and get his education and he’s successful, that’s what makes me most proud.”
Focused on details
Fleck knows it’s the little things that could make all the difference if the Gophers are going to beat Wisconsin.
The Gophers won 37-15 last year but the Badgers had a 359-325 advantage in yards. The Gophers had no turnovers while the Badgers had four and Demetrius Douglas returned a punt 69 yards for a score.
“I think whoever wins the turnover battle has the best chance to win the game, it is as simple as that,” Fleck said. “We saw how important last year the ball was. … I think that is the name of the game, especially in rivalries.”
Fleck added that special teams will play just as crucial a role.
“I think it is going to be critical. Field position is going to be everything in a game like this,” he said. “It’s hard to go 90 yards every drive against Wisconsin. You have to find a way to be able to move the football, get first downs, score when you get chances to score — whether that’s on special teams, offense or defense.”
A mix of rain and snow is in the forecast for Saturday afternoon. Does Fleck have any concerns about the weather?
“Well, Wisconsin lives in Wisconsin, Minnesota lives in Minnesota,” Fleck said. “We’re both cold-weather states in the winter. We both have to play in it. That pretty much is even right there, equal across the board.”
Meeting set tone
While Saturday is a monumental day for the Gophers, it is also Senior Day and this graduating class is one that has been through a lot.
Senior defensive lineman Winston DeLattiboudere said it will be an especially emotional moment to take the field with his family before facing Wisconsin.
“It’s extremely bittersweet, I like to say. It’s just been such a long journey, a lot of ups, a lot of downs, but it is beautiful to be with this team one last time in TCF Bank,” he said. “It has meant everything.”
DeLattiboudere said that to learn how the Gophers built this season, go back to a team meeting held before the first game against South Dakota State.
“Tanner [Morgan] led the meeting and it was all the leaders were up there, a lot of guys from the leadership council,” DeLattiboudere said. “I was up there, Tyler Johnson, Thomas Barber, Kamal Martin, Carter Coughlin, Rodney Smith was up there, we were all just sitting there and Tanner led off the meeting and he was like, ‘We’re going to have to take this thing week by week, day by day, in order to fight to get where we want to get at the end of everything.’ That was what we had first.”