Rashod Bateman poised to become another receiving threat

Freshman Rashod Bateman is coming into his own and taking pressure off of Tyler Johnson.

Freshman Rashod Bateman attempts to catch the ball on Saturday, Sept. 15 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Courtney Deutz

Freshman Rashod Bateman attempts to catch the ball on Saturday, Sept. 15 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

Paul Hodowanic

A season ago, the Gophers leading receiver was Tyler Johnson, who caught 35 passes for 677 yards and seven touchdowns. The next closest receiver, Philip Carter, had 11 catches all year. 

This season, head coach P.J. Fleck and the Gophers know if they want to improve on their 2-7 Big Ten record, they must find a No. 2 option opposite Tyler Johnson. The team believes it has found that player in true freshman Rashod Bateman. 

“We brought him here to play,” Fleck said. “He’s almost our leading receiver by now, so he’s becoming the second option very quickly, if not a first option.”

Bateman was a 4-star recruit coming out of high school and was noted as one of Fleck’s best recruits to come to Minnesota since his arrival. Bateman was recruited by the likes of Texas A&M, South Carolina and National Champion runner-up Georgia. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart even traveled to Bateman to try and flip his commitment from Minnesota to Georgia. 

However, Bateman stayed committed to the Gophers and is starting to show the talent that was coveted by so many. In the Gophers’ last game against Maryland, Bateman reeled in seven receptions for 68 yards and his first career touchdown. 

Bateman now has 20 receptions on the year for 192 yards and one touchdown. The freshman trails Johnson by only two receptions for the most on the team. 

The balance between the two will be pivotal in the coming weeks as the Gophers will see their toughest test of the year so far against Iowa and Ohio State. 

In 2017, with Johnson as the only true receiving threat, the Gophers offense struggled with the increased talent pool once they got into Big Ten play. This year, the coaches hope Bateman, along with fellow freshman wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, can take some pressure off Johnson and open the offense. 

“We need him to play at an extremely high level, and he is,” said Fleck. 

Offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca credits Bateman’s rapid growth to his natural talent and the knowledge he brings to the football field. When asked about Bateman’s ability to learn, Ciarrocca noted that some of the things that had tripped him up earlier in the season were not a problem in the Maryland game. 

“Being able to apply his knowledge in his route running. … [The] things that can happen to him in between point A and point B. That’s the key for a wide receiver: you have to get from point A to point B, but there’s a lot of stuff that can happen to you [in] between,” Ciarrocca said. “He’s still a kid, but its really encouraging to see him learn at a faster pace than a normal really good football player.”

Bateman’s route-running ability will be imperative against an Iowa team that has a strong pass rush and gets to the quarterback regularly. Bateman’s skills will give quarterback Zack Annexstad another outlet to throw the ball. 

“The relationship between him and [Annexstad] is becoming very strong,” Fleck said. 

That connection was on full display as Bateman saw a career high in targets and receptions against Maryland. The Gophers will need him to continue that momentum as they go into this week as seven-point underdogs at home against Iowa. 

The signs shown by Bateman in their first conference game offer a glimmer of hope on what is to come. If the Gophers are to improve on last year’s record, the development of Bateman as a go-to receiver will be essential. Fleck said he has no doubt Bateman could become that and more. 

“Rashod Bateman is a tremendous player, he’s a wonderful person and he’s going to have a bright future,” Fleck said.