Following an offseason that saw the Michigan football team lose its two top cornerbacks, Rashod Bateman is arguably the last player the Wolverines wanted to see on their schedule.
But with a trip to Minnesota on tap Saturday, Bateman is exactly who Michigan will be tasked with stopping in its season opener.
The reigning Big Ten Receiver of the Year, Bateman racked up 1,219 receiving yards last season — a Gophers’ all-time record among sophomores — en route to third team All-American honors. His 11 touchdowns were also a program best, while his 20.3 yards per catch mark helped establish him as one of the Big Ten’s most dangerous vertical threats.
Bateman originally opted out of the 2020 season on Aug. 4, but like some of the conference’s other premier players, did a 180 in late September when the Big Ten reversed its decision to postpone the fall season.
Now, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Bateman is set to begin his junior season with a home matchup against the Wolverines. He’s shown the ability to torch top defenses at home before, racking up 203 yards against then-No. 5 Penn State last fall to set the single-game record for most receiving yards at Minnesota’s TCF Bank Stadium. That performance trumped the second-place mark by more than 50 yards — but Bateman owns that one, too, with a 147-yard outing against then-No. 13 Wisconsin last fall.
When Michigan coach Jim Harbaugh was asked about Minnesota on Monday, Bateman was the first name out of his mouth.
“Rashod Bateman jumps out immediately,” Harbaugh said. “He’s so strong, he’s made so many strong, contested catches. Think he averaged over 20 yards per catch in 2019. He’s terrific. A real alpha type of guy and football player. Got a great challenge for us in the secondary.”
For the Wolverines’ defense, bottling up Bateman would make a statement to open the season. Michigan’s secondary was susceptible to big-play receivers last season, most notably Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy (204 yards and a touchdown), Penn State’s K.J. Hamler (108 yards and two touchdowns) and Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson (118 yards and a touchdown).
Since defensive coordinator Don Brown’s arrival five years ago, Michigan’s defense has traditionally played man coverage. That won’t change against Bateman.
“(Bateman) is definitely (junior defensive back) Vincent Gray’s task,” senior safety Brad Hawkins said during a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday. “I believe and I know that he will go out there and compete and come out on top. I believe in him and I believe in our guys. Just going in there and I know that he’s ready. He’s ready for the battle. He’s going to go out there and prove it to everybody, and we’re just ready to go.”
In Bateman, Gray may face his most difficult assignment of the year on opening night. But after spending the last two years learning from the likes of David Long, Lavert Hill and Ambry Thomas, Gray has earned the trust of his teammates and the Wolverines’ staff. And even though Michigan hasn’t seen Bateman on the schedule yet, it knows what to expect out of him.
“Sometimes, with us playing man, (the Gophers) like to throw a lot of fades to (Bateman), one-on-one, backside by himself,” Hawkins said. “We try to prepare for things like that. Ways that teams are going to attack us. The way that we play our style of defense. Every day we go out there and do what we do, do what we’ve been doing and go out there and practice 110 percent.”
For better or worse, the showdown against Bateman is a chance for the Wolverines’ defense — and Gray — to prove themselves.
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