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Zulgad: What might have been? Rashod Bateman's decision eliminates potential for special season

NCAA Football: South Dakota State at Minnesota
Aug 29, 2019; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers wide receiver Rashod Bateman (13) catches a pass for a touchdown in the first half against the South Dakota State Jackrabbits at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Rashod Bateman had 60 receptions for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns in 13 games last year in a spectacular sophomore season. Many of the wide receiver’s catches were worthy of a highlight reel. But there is one that will be forever etched in the minds of those who saw it.

It came in the Gophers’ first game of the season against South Dakota State. The score was tied 7-7 late in the second quarter and Minnesota had the ball at the Jackrabbits’ 42-yard line. Quarterback Tanner Morgan, working from the shotgun, let loose with a pass down the right sideline on a third-and-13 play.

Bateman had blown past SDSU cornerback Don Gardner and was going full speed when he pulled in Morgan’s pass with his left hand just before safety Josh Manchigiah arrived. Bateman began the process of making the catch at the 5-yard line but did not secure the ball until he was going into the end zone.

This was no ordinary catch. This one was Moss like. It was the type of reception made by a guy who is destined to be a Top 15 pick in the first-round draft of the NFL draft.

Bateman is a sure thing. He’s going to be an NFL star. But until Tuesday morning, the Gophers and their fans believed the NFL would have to wait another season for him. Bateman was expected to be a key piece of a Gophers team that has big expectations after beating Auburn on New Year’s Day in the Outback Bowl. But while we don’t know if there will be a college football season, we now know Bateman won’t be playing in it if there is one.

In what Bateman called “the hardest decision that I’ve ever had to make in my life,” he announced that he was opting out of the season because of the uncertainty surrounding health and safety issues in the “midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Bateman will begin preparing for the 2021 NFL draft.

It’s a smart decision and Bateman likely isn’t the last big-name prospect in college football who will announce that he won’t play the sport in 2020. While the big-time conferences have only canceled non-conference games at this point, there appears to be a chance the entire sport could be shifted to a spring schedule and no player who might be a high draft pick is going to take the field in the months and, perhaps, weeks before the NFL draft.

The risk would be too high and the reward too small.

Bateman did what was right for him and that’s what he should have done. The Gophers aren’t paying him and everyone already knows he’s a special talent.

It’s still a shame that Bateman’s time with the Gophers ended a year early. Bateman was one of the most dynamic players the Gophers have had. There was a thought he had a chance to establish himself as the most talented wide receiver to play football in Minnesota in 2020 and that includes Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson of the Vikings.

This prospect had to excite coach P.J. Fleck and, of course, quarterback Tanner Morgan. Tyler Johnson and Bateman formed one of the best receiver duos in the Big Ten last season, but Johnson’s departure to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers meant that Bateman was going to be the star of this show.

Bateman was recently picked picked third in the Big 10 preseason offensive player of the year voting by Cleveland.com, finishing behind Ohio State quarterback Josh Fields and Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore. Fields got 33 of the 34 first-place votes with Bateman getting the only other one. Morgan finished one spot behind Bateman.

This type of excitement about Gophers players hasn’t been the norm and the expectation that Bateman would deliver on this promise was met with zero skepticism. He’s that good.

Unfortunately, we’ll never get to find out how good he could have been.