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Zulgad: Wise decision: Rashod Bateman makes the right call in walking away from Gophers

Purdue Minnesota Football
Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman (0) falls after catching a pass, next to Purdue safety Cory Trice (23) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 20, 2020, in Minneapolis. Minnesota won 34-31. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

The Gophers had been routed 35-7 by the Iowa Hawkeyes on Nov. 13 at TCF Bank Stadium when the suggestion was made that Rashod Bateman might be wise to opt out for the remainder of the season. The wide receiver had elected to opt out during the summer because of concerns about COVID-19 — when it was uncertain if or when the Big Ten would even play — only to decide to return (and receive clearance from the NCAA) after the conference reinstated its fall season.

But coming off a year in which the Gophers had gone 11-2, Minnesota was now 1-3 and appeared headed nowhere. Bateman had entered his junior year projected as a first-round pick in the NFL draft and there seemed little reason to continue playing during a season that was constantly being impacted by a pandemic.

A tweet about this on Twitter was met with agreement from many and resistance from some who felt such a move would make Bateman look like a quitter. Bateman hung in there through the Gophers’ 34-31 victory over Purdue last Friday, but on Wednesday, a day after the Gophers’ game on Saturday at Wisconsin was canceled because of a coronavirus outbreak on the Minnesota team, Bateman decided it was best to devote his attention to the NFL draft in April and end his collegiate career. He shared the news on Twitter.

It was the right choice.

There has been debate in recent seasons about top players who opt out of their team’s bowl games and whether they are being fair to their team. But we have to remember that these players aren’t paid to play for colleges that make huge money off of football. Bateman had to realize that there was zero upside for him to continue to play.

At most, the Gophers will have three regular-season games remaining and there was nothing Bateman was going to do in that time to significantly improve his draft stock. But one wrong step, or one wrong hit, could have had a very negative impact. It’s highly unlikely that any NFL executive is going to consider a high-character player who stepped away during a pandemic-impacted season to be a quitter.

NFL teams are going find a way to get a look at top prospects — the Scouting Combine in February has yet to be canceled — and that’s where the ultimate decision on Bateman’s future likely will be made. ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper has Bateman as his No. 25 overall prospect and the No. 6 wide receiver for the 2021 draft.

Last season, the Gophers had one of the top receiving duos in the country as Bateman had 60 catches for 1,219 yards and 11 touchdowns and Tyler Johnson finished with 86 receptions for 1,318 yards and 13 touchdowns. Johnson was taken by Tampa Bay in the fifth round of the draft last spring. Bateman will finish this season with 36 catches for 472 yards and two touchdowns.

The shame of it is that Bateman did not get a full or normal season to try to replicate his success from 2019. Maybe it wouldn’t have happened — Johnson’s departure certainly made a difference — but Bateman also proved himself to be one of the most gifted receivers to ever wear a Gophers uniform and seeing his talents on display without any interruptions could have been great fun.

Instead, the Gophers will finish out a disappointing season without one of their star players. In this case, you can’t blame that player for walking away.