When a skinny Rashod Bateman was just beginning to come into his own halfway through high school in Tifton, his southern Georgia hometown, he went with what he knew and made an early verbal commitment to the successful, second-tier program located less than a three-hour drive away.
"Georgia Southern was just like the school you go to," Bateman said. "I didn't think I was going to be that highly recruited."
His development accelerated, however, and after a standout performance at a summer camp prior to his senior year he had his first scholarship offer from a power conference team: Minnesota. Fast forward to Saturday, when Bateman's fledgling career will experience a full-circle moment with Georgia Southern's visit to TCF Bank Stadium to face his Gophers.
Bateman, the rising star sophomore whose 237 receiving yards rank third in the Big Ten, is one of 12 natives of Georgia on Minnesota's roster. Running back Rodney Smith (Jonesboro), cornerbacks Terell Smith (Snellville) and Chris Williamson (Atlanta), and kicker Michael Lantz (Fayetteville) are among other key players.
Though the Gophers would be hard-pressed to ever turn the heart of SEC country into a true pipeline for talent, the highlight reel that Bateman has already assembled can certainly have a snowball effect.
"People back home down south, not a lot of them think about coming to the north just because it's so far from home and a lot of them are scared of the cold," Bateman said. "But I think once they see success from a kid from down south or from their hometown, I think they feel like they can do the same thing."
Bateman's mere presence in Minnesota is an example of the culture around the program that coach P.J. Fleck and his staff exalt at every opportunity. As his game took off as a senior for the Tift County Blue Devils, big-time teams became interested. Bateman had late offers from Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M, but he refused to budge on the Gophers. He even had the block "M'' logo tattooed on his arm beneath "RTB," standing for Fleck's "Row The Boat" slogan.
Now about 25 pounds heavier than when he first committed to Minnesota, Bateman has become more than simply a sidekick to star senior Tyler Johnson. Opponents can be easily burned by relying on one-on-one coverage against Bateman, as Indiana realized last year when he broke a tie late in the fourth quarter with a 67-yard touchdown reception. South Dakota State found that out, too, when he hauled in, with one hand, a 42-yard catch for a score in the season opener.
Bateman had seven receptions for 105 yards last week at Fresno State, when fellow sophomore Chris Autman-Bell caught a 20-yard touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone on fourth down with 46 seconds remaining to tie the game the Gophers eventually won in two overtimes. Yes, this Minnesota team is as deep at wide receiver as any other in the conference.
"If you saw how hard those guys worked in the offseason and how connected they are," quarterback Tanner Morgan said, "you could see it on the field."
WINNING WITH WINFIELD
Antoine Winfield Jr. saved the game last week with an interception in the end zone in the second overtime, sealing a 38-35 victory. Sound familiar? Winfield ended last year's matchup with the Bulldogs the same way, with a leaping end zone pickoff late in the fourth quarter to preserve a 21-14 win. Winfield has become the defense's most indispensable player, displaying the same type of football instinct his father had during his 14-year NFL career.
"It's just natural over time, just playing and practicing with the same mentality," Winfield said. "Just go hard and make a play when it comes to you."
The Gophers, believe it or not, have the longest active nonconference winning streak by an FBS team with 17 straight victories. Their last such loss was on Sept. 3, 2015, a 23-17 decision against second-ranked TCU.
NICE TO MEET YOU
Minnesota has never played Georgia Southern, which won six national championships at the FCS level before moving to FBS in 2014. The Eagles went 10-3 last season and beat Eastern Michigan in the Camelia Bowl. The Gophers are 10-0 all-time against Sun Belt Conference foes.
Georgia Southern has played one Big Ten opponent previously, a loss at Indiana in 2017. The Eagles faced Fleck when he was at Western Michigan, splitting a pair of games with the Broncos in 2015 and 2016.
WAY BACK WHEN
Georgia Southern offensive coordinator Bob DeBesse held the same job at Minnesota from 1992-1996, directing the "Air Wacker" teams under head coach Jim Wacker that finished 16-39 overall but led the Big Ten in passing yards three times.