Gophers freshman receiver Bateman breaking U records
MINNEAPOLIS -- As his last three touchdown catches attest, Gophers receiver Rashod Bateman is running free on the other side of the proverbial freshman wall.
After his 67-yard fourth-quarter TD propelled Minnesota to a 38-31 victory over Indiana two weeks ago, Bateman scored on 61- and 86-yard receptions in Minnesota’s 55-31 loss Saturday at Illinois. After making several catches earlier this season, he was either tripped up or didn’t find the necessary angle to get to the end zone on potentially game-changing plays. Now, he’s practicing bursts downfield immediately after he makes a catch.
“It paid off in the game,” the true freshman said Wednesday.
Bateman’s ninth game at Minnesota was another banner day, in what's becoming an almost weekly occurrence. The precocious playmaker matched or set new career highs in receptions (7), yards (175) and touchdowns (2) against the Illini. It produced the Gophers’ third Big Ten freshman of the week honors, something Minnesota hasn’t received more than once in previous seasons.
With 42 receptions, Bateman already has broken Ron Johnson’s freshman record of 38 set in 1998. He needs 77 yards and two touchdowns to break Ernie Wheelright’s 2004 freshman records for yards (654) and touchdown (7).
“Every freshman that I've ever seen hits a wall at some point,” Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. “They hit the wall at different speeds. Some hit the wall, it's flat, just runs down like an egg, right? It's over.
"Some hit the wall and they … go down, then they kind of crawl back up. Some hit the wall and they go right through the wall. What he's doing is going through the wall.”
Bateman, a four-star receiver from Tifton, Ga., said his welcome-to-college moment was seeing the size and speed on the field during the Gophers’ first practice in fall camp. He said he knew he could compete in college during his first game, when he had five receptions for 52 yards in a 48-10 rout of New Mexico State.
He added five receptions for 78 yards the following week in the 21-14 win over Fresno State, which is now 23rd in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Caution: Here’s about where Bateman collided the wall. Gophers offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca doesn’t know exactly when Bateman hit it, but it was after the Gophers switched Bateman’s receiver spot from the “Z” to the “X.”
“It wasn’t the first week, which is where I thought it would get him,” Ciarrocca said. “It was the second week whatever that was, where you felt like, man, he’s not playing as fast.”
While Bateman had three receptions for minus-6 yards in Game 3 against Miami (Ohio), any impact with the wall didn’t leave him stunned. Ciarrocca said receivers coach Matt Simon has managed what Bateman has on his plate this season.
“We have grown his package (of plays) each week and tried to be cautious of maybe one less thing for him than one too many, so he would play fast,” Ciarrocca said. “Matt has done a tremendous job in developing him and making sure he continues to play fast on Saturdays.”
Last winter, Fleck wasn't worried about when Bateman might hit a freshman wall. He was concerned about the rising star coming to Minnesota at all.
After Bateman committed to Fleck and the Gophers in June before his final season of high school ball, he started climbing Georgia’s all-time receiving yardage list before settling at fifth (1,573). And that's when his home-state Georgia Bulldogs and other Southeastern Conference schools —Tennessee, South Carolina and Texas A&M — started to recruit him.
“It (was) too late," Bateman said Wednesday. "I already had a strong bond with people here and teammates here and the coaches and my family felt comfortable with it. This is where I wanted to be, so that’s why I stuck here.”
Bateman remained so committed to the Gophers that he had “R.T.B” tattooed on his right forearm. That’s the acronym for Fleck’s “Row the Boat” mantra, with the “B” etched to split into his No. 13.
“Lot of people said I’m crazy,” he said of the tattoo. “They still say I’m crazy.”
With the freshman wall hurdled and behind him, the Gophers are more convinced he will be crazy good.