One by one, they traveled to southern Georgia last fall, Southeastern Conference football coaches hoping to lure Tift County High School’s wide receiver phenom.
And one by one, Rashod Bateman turned them away. He wasn’t being rude, mind you. He was just steadfast in the commitment that he had given Gophers coach P.J. Fleck.
“When Coach [Jeremy] Pruitt just got the job at Tennessee, they came down here in full force and offered Rashod,” said Ashley Anders, Tift County’s coach. “Basically, Rashod said, ‘Coach, I don’t even want to talk to them.’ I called him, and said, ‘Look, they’re here to see you.’ He said, ‘Nah, Coach. I need to stay in econ class.’ ”
Even Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who would lead the Bulldogs to the national championship game, got a bit of a stiff-arm from Bateman when he arrived in Tifton.
“He said, ‘Look, I’m not going to pressure the kid. I just want to talk to him and tell him the University of Georgia wants him,’ ” said Anders, who was an assistant coach with Smart at Valdosta State. “So, Rashod agreed to talk to him. I guess after the conversation, Coach Smart invited him on an official visit, and Rashod said, ‘Coach, I appreciate you coming, but I’m going to Minnesota.’ ”
The decision is working out nicely for the Gophers and Bateman, who ranks second on the team with 42 receptions for 578 yards and six touchdowns. The receptions are a team freshman record, and he is 77 yards and two TDs shy of breaking those freshman marks, too. His next chance to break those records comes Saturday vs. Purdue at TCF Bank Stadium.
The speedy, 6-2, 200-pounder is coming off a game at Illinois in which he caught seven passes for 175 yards, including touchdowns of 61 and 86 yards. That performance earned him Big Ten co-freshman of the week honors, and it came a week after he caught the winning 67-yard TD pass late in the fourth quarter against Indiana.
“I feel good about my last two games,” said Bateman, a four-star recruit who has started every game this season. “I got a lot of help from my teammates. Without them, none of it would have been possible.”
Without Bateman, much of what the Gophers are doing offensively wouldn’t be possible. He is the standout among seven freshmen who are starting on offense, and he has supplied consistency with at least two catches in every game. The Gophers are averaging 388.6 yards of offense per game, their most since 2007.
“He’s able to make these big plays in a lot of crucial and big-time situations, which is very difficult for a young player to do,” Fleck said.
Finding a gem
Bateman’s path to Minnesota began in June 2017, when he participated in a satellite camp in Georgia. He had a solid junior season the previous fall, with 56 catches for 825 yards and five touchdowns, but hadn’t yet attracted the attention of SEC schools.
“As soon as I saw him work out there, I was thinking, ‘Man, if the bright lights don’t get this guy, he can play,’ ” Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca said. “He’s very talented.”
Bateman was quickly impressed with the Fleck and his staff.
“When that satellite came around, they really jumped on Rashod hard,” Anders said. “He called me and said: ‘Coach, I really feel good about these guys. I think I want to commit.’ I told him: ‘If that’s what you want to do, I’m all for it. I support you 100 percent.’ I try to preach to the kids that if you commit, that’s not like having a girlfriend anymore. You’re married.”
While Bateman was having an outstanding senior season at Tift County — 83 catches, 1,539 yards, 21 TDs — several high-profile suitors would try to test that marriage. Ole Miss, South Carolina and Texas A&M joined Tennessee and Georgia as SEC teams offering him. Virginia Tech recruited him to be a defensive back.
But Bateman stayed true to the Gophers, and after he signed his letter of intent, he got a tattoo on his right arm with the school’s block M logo and “R.T.B.” — a nod to Fleck’s “Row the Boat” culture. The capital B is split down the middle to form Bateman’s jersey No. 13.
“All of the tattoos I have on my body mean something to me, and now that I’m here, it’s part of my life,” Bateman said.
Breaking through the wall
Like most freshmen, Bateman has endured some growing pains. After catching 10 passes for 130 yards over his first two games, he was held to three for minus-6 yards vs. Miami (Ohio).
“The physical and mental strain that you’re put under every day is tough on those freshmen,” Ciarrocca said. “He hit a little bit of a wall at one point, but he knocked that wall down faster than probably anybody that I’ve ever seen as a freshman.”
Bateman rebounded with seven catches and his first touchdown against Maryland and followed that up with seven grabs and two TDs against Iowa. In the past two weeks, he has 11 catches for 283 yards and three TDs. “To see Rashod be able to catch a 10-yard pass and split the defense and take it to the house is really fun,” quarterback Tanner Morgan said.
Added junior receiver Tyler Johnson, who has taken Bateman under his wing: “The kid can ball, as you all can see. I’m just glad I get to see him progress each week.”
As Bateman continues to improve, the Gophers are reaping the benefits of a standout leaving SEC country for Minnesota.
“I was ready for a change. I wanted to come up north for a difference,” he said. “… This is where I wanted to be.”