Gophers cautiously optimistic star WR Rashod Bateman will be eligible for 2020 season

Rashod Bateman #13 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers runs for a touchdown against the Penn State Nittany Lions in the first quarter at TCFBank Stadium on November 9, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. ((Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images))

The University of Minnesota football team will start an eight-game regular season against Michigan on Oct. 24 at TCF Bank Stadium, and P.J. Fleck doesn’t yet know if star receiver Rashod Bateman will be on the field.

The Big Ten Conference announced last Wednesday that it will start a fall football season, without fans, in late October. Fleck’s first phone call once that news became official? It was to Bateman.

“All I did was ask him if you ever want to come back, we’d love to be able to have you. We’re going to be able to have to do a lot of different things to have that happen, we can’t guarantee you can come back, there are going to be a lot of things you’re going to have to be able to do because of your situation,” Fleck said. “He is practicing right now with us, there’s going to be a lot of other things we have to do moving forward for him to be cleared. That’s down the road a little bit, but he’s doing everything he can to handle today. That’s all we told him to focus on. The right measures are being taken, that’s for sure.”

Bateman announced back on Aug. 4 that he was opting out of the 2020 college football season due to uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. He didn’t know at that time if there would be a fall season, and Bateman suffers from asthma.

That, and he’s a projected first-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Maybe even a top-10 pick. With plenty of health concerns and no answers at the time, it was the right decision for the reigning Big Ten Receiver of the Year.

“Rashod initially opted out for all the right reasons, for health concerns, period. That’s what he made it very clear on everything he went on, it was for health concerns. There were too many unanswered questions down the road, just too many unknowns for people to be able to make those decisions,” Fleck said. “Those questions were answered for student-athletes all over the country at different schools.”

In that most recent phone call with Fleck, Bateman expressed his desire to return if it was possible. The main complication is he had already signed with Team IFA, an agency run by Blake Baratz. There’s work to do to reach compliance guidelines with the NCAA, but there’s also cautious optimism that Bateman will be on the field when the Gophers host Michigan on Oct. 24. The best sign is that he’s practicing and with his Gophers teammates on a daily basis.

Fleck said Tuesday in that conversation with Bateman, he would support the star receiver in whatever that decision was.

“This was strictly his decision. This was all Rashod, he didn’t need much convincing. I simply asked him if you ever want the option to come back, I’d be willing to talk to you,” Fleck said. “I told him If you decide to come back, it’s not guaranteed that you’re going to come back. You might go through the next four, five weeks and you might not be allowed to play. Is it worth it to you? Without hesitation, he said ‘it’s worth it, I really want to come back.’ He didn’t want to come back for Rashod Bateman, he came back for his teammates too and I think that’s really exciting about him.”

Bateman set school records last year with 1,219 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns on the way to being named the Big Ten’s best receiver, and a First Team All-Big Ten pick. He also set school records as a freshman with 51 catches and 704 receiving yards.

Teammates Tanner Morgan and Mo Ibrahim reached out to Bateman the weekend after they knew they were having a 2020 season in the fall. Neither call was about asking Bateman if he was coming back, they were checking in on their friend and didn’t know his return was possible.

“He told me right away ‘Hey, I think I’m going to be able to come back.’ I thought he was joking at first to be honest with you. It’s just something that we’re really excited about, because he wanted to do it for the team, not for Rashod. For the guys in the locker room, for Minnesota,” Morgan said.

“When Rashod opted out, he was never really gone. He was always around the team, so that Sunday I talked to him. He told me that he wanted to come back, and I thought he was joking. I didn’t think it was a possibility,” Ibrahim said. “Just understanding that he can come back, that was a big boost to the whole team. Just him being in the locker room now just boosts up everybody, we’re happy to see him, his smile, when he gets out there on the field you can just feel the energy come back.”

There is no timetable for a decision on Bateman’s eligibility.