Rashod Bateman found a home with the Gophers two years ago, but he has already decided to leave.
The star receiver from Georgia announced in a social media video Tuesday he had opted out of the 2020 football season to train for the 2021 NFL draft.
He told the Gophers of his decision in the morning, citing “uncertainty around health and safety in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Bateman, who would have been a junior for a team coming off an 11-2 season, called this “the hardest decision” he has ever made.
He said he’d give anything to play for coach P.J. Fleck again and deliver a Big Ten championship to the Twin Cities.
“Unfortunately,” Bateman said in the video, “I have to set my wishes aside for the wellness of my family, community and beyond.”
Bateman is one of a handful of college football players who have decided not to play this season, while conferences and the NCAA have grappled for months to find a way to safely play in the fall. He and Virginia Tech cornerback Caleb Farley are the most prominent players to opt out, both planning for a professional career.
Foregoing his junior season won’t hurt Bateman’s draft stock at all; he already was projected as a first-round pick. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. tweeted that he has Bateman ranked as the No. 8 player on his early draft board.
The reigning Big Ten Receiver of the Year and third-team All-America selection totaled 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns last season, part of a near-unstoppable tandem with Tyler Johnson, now of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Losing those receivers takes the Gophers, who finished No. 10 in the country, from one of the strongest returning offenses to one with two glaring holes. Junior quarterback Tanner Morgan, who set single-season school records last season for passing yards (3,253) and touchdown passes (30), no longer has his favorite two options. New offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. might have to tweak the system accordingly.
Without Bateman and Johnson, junior Chris Autman-Bell ascends from the No. 3 spot. He made 28 catches for 371 yards and five touchdowns. Junior Demetrius Douglas will also likely take a starting spot after his 14 catches for 157 yards last year. Wildcat quarterback Seth Green could be another option.
The Gophers also have three incoming freshman receivers, including four-star recruit Daniel Jackson. Tight ends Jake Paulson and Brevyn Spann-Ford also could see increased passing-game action.
In a statement, Fleck showed support for Bateman’s decision that felt best for the player and his family. Fleck recruiting Bateman out of Georgia and convinced him to come to the Gophers despite a late push from his home-state school.
“Rashod played a pivotal role in helping mold the University of Minnesota into an elite Big Ten program,” Fleck said in the statement. “He was a joy to coach and has developed into an NFL caliber of player. We could not be more proud of Rashod’s historic and All-American career at Minnesota.”
This isn’t the end for Bateman and his adopted home, though. Bateman revealed early in the 2019 season his big plans for the distant future.
“I fell in love with Minnesota. I’ve thought about it, I think I’m going to retire and live on Lake Minnetonka,” Bateman said back in September. “ … I love it here.”