Bateman rows into sophomore season

Rashod Bateman celebrates after scoring one of his two touchdowns against Iowa in 2018.

MINNEAPOLIS — Former Tift County athlete Rashod Bateman is nearing his second season as a member of the University of Minnesota football team.

All eyes will be upon him this year. An outstanding campaign saw him set freshman records for the Golden Gophers in both receptions (51) and yards (704) and win Big 10 Freshman of the Week in November for his play against Illinois. At the end of the season, Minnesota named Bateman and offensive lineman Daniel Faalele as Offensive Freshman of the Year.

Bateman said his summer on the field is going well.

“Everything’s going smooth,” he said.

The Gophers are in the midst of practices for the 2019 season, which is set to start Aug. 29 at TCF Bank Stadium against South Dakota State.

Minnesota is full of optimism as to what is to come, with Bateman being a significant reason for it. The Golden Gophers are one of the nation’s oldest college football programs — on the field a full decade before anyone in the Peach State eyed a pigskin — but have had their difficulties in the Big 10. They last earned a conference championship in 1967.

The Golden Gophers were exceptionally young last season on offense. Every last quarterback candidate was a freshman. Leading rusher Mohamed Ibrahim was a redshirt freshman. The only offensive stat leader with experience was Tyler Johnson, who led the receiving corps with 1,169 yards and 12 touchdowns. Bateman was second best among receivers, at 704 yards and six tallies.

Despite the inexperience in scoring points, Minnesota won its first three regular season contests. They hit a snag midseason with four straight losses in-conference, but rebounded well, ending the regular season with their first win over arch-rival Wisconsin since 2003 and for the first win in Madison since 1994. From there, they went to the Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit and torched Georgia Tech, 34-10.

“Winning the Axe as a freshman was pretty special,” Bateman said. “The guys have worked very hard to get the job done.”

“It was just a special thing to see with all the fans and everybody in the athletic department that’s been working hard and put forth the effort to make that finally happen. It was a very special moment for Minnesota that day.”

Minnesota had dueling quarterbacks last season in Tanner Morgan and Zack Annexstad. In the spring game, Annexstad threw for 191 yards and a touchdown and Morgan had 139 yards and two touchdowns. (Bateman earned the maroon squad’s Sid Hartman MVP for his six catches and 164 yards.)

“They’re both just competitors,” said Bateman. “They don’t compete against each for the job.” He said that no matter who is under center, Minnesota will be headed in the right direction.

Besides Johnson and Bateman, Chris Autman-Bell racked up plenty of yardage as a receiver in 2018. Bateman said he works well with them.

“They’re both like my older brothers,” he said. All have different areas of strength, he said. “We help each other out.”

There were adjustments to be made from high school. Strength, he said, was a big one.

“I’ve gained a lot of weight and muscle since I’ve been here,” said Bateman. As a high school senior, he was listed as 170 pounds. The latest roster indicates he has added 30 more pounds, every bit of it muscle. “I feel like the strength of the game and how fast it is was the big change for me.” He said he put even more effort into the offseason on getting better.

Bateman had catches in every game, though it took until game No. 4 to secure his first touchdown, a twisting grab against Maryland. It did not take him long to get ahead of defenders from there. A 67-yard bomb against Indiana on Oct. 26 was the game-winner.

A short pass versus Illinois turned into a 61-yard touchdown because of his speed. Later in the same contest, he outran six defenders for an 86-yard score.

Bateman said spring football had been a big help for him, and, coupled with the year of experience from 2018, the game had slowed down for him.

He’s catching up on the field, but off the field was something else entirely: Minnesota winters.

While snow is rarely more than a rumor here, the Twin Cities has more than enough. February set a record for Minneapolis (31.5 inches fell through Feb. 21) and a city government page for Minneapolis even has specific rules for shoveling the white stuff.

“It was rough, but it was also excitement at the same time,” Bateman said. He still hasn’t been ice skating, but he has turned into a hockey fan. “Our hockey team here at the University of Minnesota are really talented and are pretty good, so me and a couple of teammates usually go to a couple of hockey games because they’re really fun to go to.” He rates lake life as his favorite part of being in the Twin Cities.

“Minnesota summers are something to enjoy,” he said.

Bateman’s goals for 2019 likely double as the Golden Gophers’. “Win the Big 10 and eventually get to the playoffs and go to the national championship.” Personally, he said, “Whatever happens to me, happens to me. I don’t have any set goals for myself because I feel like they’d be selfish for me. Whatever God has in store for me, then that’s what’s going to happen for me.”

Minnesota snagged Bateman as a verbal commitment to Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck in June 2017, just before his senior season. He went on to make it official during the early college signing period in December.

In between those dates, Bateman smashed Tift County’s records for yardage and touchdowns. He finished his career with 29 touchdowns, besting Darrien Teals’ mark of 21. Twenty-one of Bateman’s scores were as a senior, a record since the Tifton Blue Devils became Tift County in 1962.

Since leaving South Georgia, Fleck’s influence on Bateman has been huge.

“He’s been a father figure to me,” he said. “After the trials and tribulations that has happened in my life,” Bateman has been able to walk into Fleck’s office and talk about life. “It’s not just always football with him.” Of course, Fleck’s energy is a plus, too.

Bateman was all-in on Minnesota, getting an R.T.B. tattoo about a week before he arrived on campus. That stands for “Row the Boat,” one of Fleck’s sayings that carried over from his tenure at Western Michigan. “I wear it with pride,” he said.

Among his other ink are numbers that represent his hometown. On the back of an arm is “229,” Tift County’s area code.

“I have to remember where I came from,” he said, “and I want everybody else to know where I came from, too.”

He stays in touch with Tift County folks, including players and former coaches Ashley Anders and Marc Beach. Bateman and Beach talk weekly. “We all stay in contact because we were all really close.”

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