Rashod Bateman is trying to make history. Minnesota has never had a wide receiver selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Beyond that, it hasn’t produced a first-round pick in 15 years. Running back Laurence Maroney was the last Gopher to get drafted in the top 32 when the New England Patriots took him with the 21st-overall selection back in 2006.
Bateman has eyes set on ending both droughts this year. That’s not to say that Minnesota hasn't sent some good receivers to the NFL. The Denver Broncos got excellent value out of Eric Decker when they used a third-round pick on him back in 2010. Bateman’s running mate for much of his collegiate career was Tyler Johnson, who just won a Super Bowl in his first year in the league with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Minnesota may not send many receivers to the next level, but when they do, it tends to be in the form of an exciting talent.
The 2021 NFL Draft is loaded with talented wide receiver prospects, but Bateman easily stands out as one of the best among them. It’s easy to see why teams will be clamoring for Bateman’s services this month. On tape, Bateman is a big and fast receiver that pairs savvy route running with strong ball skills.
I had a long conversation with Bateman that paints a picture of why he’s considered an elite talent. We talked about growing up in Tifton, Georgia, why he chose to attend Minnesota, his alpha mentality, and a whole lot more.
JM: You grew up in Tifton, Georgia. I’m going to be honest with you. I’ve never heard of it. I don’t know anything about it. When I looked it up, I saw that the population is made up of about 20,000 people. What was life like growing up in Tifton?
RB: You said it. It’s hard to find (laughs). I’m not gonna blame you for not knowing anything about Tifton. Not a lot of folks do. There’s not much to know about Tifton. That’s where I’m from. It’s a small town. Everybody knows everybody. Tifton has a little bit of everything. It’s full of both good and bad people. It has its drugs and violence. You have some good things as well. I grew up around a lot of toxic situations both inside and outside my household. I learned good values from my mother. She told me to keep my head down and to be a good person. She raised me the right way. To make it out of Tifton is something I’ve always dreamed about.
JM: You went to the local high school, Tift County. Did you ever think about going to a bigger high school?
RB: It was an underrecruited place. It’s tough to get your name out there when you’re at Tifton. Before my senior year, I sat down with my mom and my godparents and discussed the possibility of transferring to a bigger school nearby. We looked at some schools with better football programs, ones that had a better history of sending kids to college. At the end of the day, Tifton means a lot to me. That’s where I grew up. To stay there and prove that I could make it out of there, that meant everything to me. I decided to stay and set a good example for the younger generation. That was the best thing I could do for my community. I want the kids to know that it’s possible to dream big.
JM: You’ve set a terrific example for the kids growing up in your neighborhood. You weren’t just a great football player in high school. You also lettered in basketball. What was it like balancing both sports?
RB: It wasn’t difficult. I would just go from one sport to the next. Football would end and basketball would start up. It was a lot of fun. It kept me occupied and out of trouble. It kept me away from home. It gave me something to do and focus on. It kept me out of the streets. I looked forward to it. Basketball was a big part of my athletic career path. I had offers to play basketball in college. Playing basketball made me a better football player.
JM: You graduated from Tifton and you headed to Minnesota, which is a very different place from Georgia. What were some of the things that shocked you when you first arrived in Minnesota?
RB: I was shocked by how nice the people were (laughs). Being from Georgia and where I’m from specifically, you don’t get that a lot. People in Minnesota are very polite. That’s something I love about Minnesota. I went there and adapted to it. It was a good thing for me. It taught me how to be more respectful. Minnesota made me a more kind and genuine person.
The weather was obviously another shock for me (laughs). I never experienced anything like that in Georgia. I got a little used to it by my freshman year. My freshman year was one of the worst winters in Minnesota history (laughs). It definitely broke me in.
JM: Of course it was one of their worst winters (laughs). You broke a lot of records at Minnesota. You had such an incredible career. How do you look back on your time spent there?
RB: I had a lot of fun at Minnesota. I did a lot of good things on the field. The biggest thing I wanted to do was make an impact on the kids in the community. I want my time in Minnesota to be remembered for what I did in the community. It’s nice to be known as a good football player, but I just wanted to be remembered as a good person. That’s what I wanted my fans to know.
That’s what I cherish the most. Everybody close to me knows that I’ll always call Minnesota my second home. That period in my life will always mean a lot to me. It opened up a lot of doors for me and my family. I cherish every moment that I had in Minnesota.
JM: I love that. I imagine you realize that Minnesota has never had a receiver drafted in the first round. That’s a bit shocking. The program hasn’t had a first-round pick in 15 years. Laurence Maroney was the last one when New England picked him with the 21st selection in the 2006 NFL Draft. I imagine you’re hoping to end both of those droughts.
RB: Going to Minnesota in the first place, [head] coach P.J. Fleck always had a plan to change the perspective of how others view the program. Coach Fleck wanted to transform the athletics department in general. We’re at a point now where Minnesota athletics can compete with any school in the nation. It goes beyond football, but I especially feel that way about our football program. For me to accomplish that, to get drafted in the first round would definitely be huge for the program. It would mean so much to Minnesota. That’s the most important thing to me.
JM: You have a great chance to help change the narrative this month; 2020 was a strange year for the world in general, and college football wasn’t exempt from that. You went through a lot of uncertainty at Minnesota this past year. How did you handle that?
RB: 2020 was a rough year for everybody overall both mentally and physically. At the same time, I learned a lot as a person. I had to make some tough decisions. Those decisions prepared me and helped catapult me to the place I’m at now. It prepared me for life in general. You never know what life has planned for you. I have all of the tools at my disposal to drive my success. You have to take things as they come. 2020 brought a lot of uncertainty and it was difficult at times. I made it out on the other side.
JM: That’s a great way to look at it. How has the predraft process been treating you?
RB: It’s been fun. I’ve been busy. My schedule has been jam-packed with Zoom calls from different teams. I’m working out and staying prepared. I’ve been doing a lot of media. I’m taking it all in. We’re getting pretty close to draft day now. The clock is definitely ticking. I’ve enjoyed this process. I can’t wait to find out where I end up. I’m just working hard every single day.
JM: When I turn the tape on, I see a big receiver that pairs excellent route-running ability with strong ball skills. How did you develop those aspects of your game?
RB: Having a strong work ethic comes first and foremost. I’m somebody that’s always responded well to coaching. I can take what I’m taught and apply it. I’ve always put in a lot of work during my time away from the team as well. I’m a big believer in that. I’ve had two excellent teachers in coach Fleck and [offensive coordinator] Matt Simon. I’ve learned a lot from those two guys right there. I study a lot of receivers. I went to a school that prepared me well for this next chapter. It all worked out for me.
JM: You’re also incredibly physical. You break a lot of tackles and pick up a ton of yards after the catch. You’re very tough to tackle in the open field.
RB: That plays a big role in being a successful receiver. You have to be able to do it. It comes with the territory. You have to have that mentality. I have to make plays after the catch. Every time I catch the ball, I’m thinking about making a big play. My job is to make big plays for the team.
JM: You spent a few years playing next to Tyler Johnson. He had a tremendous amount of success at Minnesota and just won a Super Bowl as a rookie. What did you learn from him?
RB: Funny enough, Tyler was actually my host when I took my first visit to the Minnesota campus (laughs). We’ve been pretty close ever since then. He accepted me with open arms from the moment I arrived. He’s kind of like my big brother. I know he’s just one call away at all times. Learning from him was big for me. We learned from one another. He gave me advice on things. He taught me a lot about the game of football in general.
JM: You mentioned Simon earlier. I know Simon quite well. He’s an underrated wide receivers coach in my opinion. Not only did he coach yourself and Johnson, but he also coached Corey Davis at Western Michigan. How did coach Simon help elevate your game?
RB: Coach Simon is a great coach. I’m glad you said that. I love the way he coaches. He’s extremely professional. He pushed everybody to be better. That extends beyond the receivers. He wanted to help every single player on the team become the best version of themselves.
As soon as I got on campus, one of the first things he told me was that if I wanted to make the NFL, I had to carry myself like a professional at all times. That’s something that stuck with me. Coach Simon pushed me to be great. He always kept me on track.
JM: He’s a great coach. Do you have a favorite route to run?
RB: I don’t really have a favorite. We weren’t asked to run a ton of routes at Minnesota. If I had to pick one, I would probably say a post route.
JM: How do you approach a bigger, physical cornerback in coverage differently than you do a smaller, shiftier one?
RB: I really make those decisions by studying defenders on film. I watch a lot of tape on opposing corners throughout the week. I just try to use my speed and quickness to win. I use the details that I’ve been taught to my advantage. I try to be a creative receiver when it comes to how I attack cornerbacks in coverage.
JM: You’ve been busy meeting with teams virtually via Zoom over the past few weeks. What’s that process been like?
RB: I couldn’t even tell you all the teams that I’ve met with. It’s a long list (laughs). I’ve been on calls with a bunch of teams. We’re getting to know each other. We’ve gone over some film. We’re watching plays together. I’m having fun. I’ve learned a lot throughout this process. I’m excited for whatever comes next.
JM: I’ve appreciated your time today. In closing, when a team uses an early draft pick on Rashod Bateman, who are they getting?
RB: They’re getting the whole package. I can do anything the team needs me to do. I have every bit of confidence in myself. I can perform at the highest level imaginable. I feel like I’ve been well prepared for the next level. I’m going to continue to get better. I know that my ceiling is incredibly high and I haven’t reached it yet. I have a lot of room to grow. Whenever my name gets called, I’m gonna be ready for whatever.