MINNEAPOLIS — One coach's message has stuck with P.J. Fleck since he played receiver at Northern Illinois: "My job is to out-recruit you."
"You're a player at the time, you're catching passes, you think you're invincible," the Gophers head coach recalled Tuesday, Nov. 7. "... I said, 'What do you mean?' "
"He said, 'Your job is to keep your job. Your job is to play so well I can't replace you. But my job is to always find somebody better than you.' "
Heading into Saturday's game against Nebraska, the Gophers (4-5, 1-5 Big Ten) have struggled in the passing game, ranking 118th among 129 programs nationwide. Quarterbacks Conor Rhoda and Demry Croft have had an increasingly difficult time finding open receivers — primarily Tyler Johnson, whose early success has drawn more attention from defenses and left the Gophers short on other options.
Enter the crop of receivers in the 2018 recruiting class: Jornell Manns of Mansfield, Ohio; Eric Gibson of Detroit; and Rashod Bateman of Tifton, Ga.
If there's one position above others where Fleck should be able to win recruiting battles, it's at receiver. The pitch can include his underdog story as an undersized target from the Mid-American Conference making it to a reserve role with the San Francisco 49ers.
As a receivers coach at Rutgers, Fleck helped convert Mohamed Sanu from defensive back to wideout; he's a six-year NFL vet now with the Atlanta Falcons. As receivers coach with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Fleck helped Vincent Jackson to a career year in 2012.
Then, as head coach at Western Michigan — along with position coach Matt Simon, who is in the same role at Minnesota — they produced Corey Davis, the fifth pick by the Tennessee Titans in the NFL Draft last spring who is working his way back from a hamstring injury.
Bateman fits the profile of a receiver who can compete with the Gophers' current stable of receivers. Minnesota also expects to have freshman Chris Autman-Bell and Demetrius Douglas back from injuries next season.
At 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, Bateman attends Tift County about 200 miles south of Atlanta. He has climbed the Georgia high school record book for receiving yards in a season. He has 1,249 yards in 10 games in the state's biggest class and is a deep, potentially five-game playoff run away from surpassing Demarco Robinson's top mark of 1,655 yards in 2010.
Before the season, Bateman had been offered basketball scholarships to Penn State and Viriginia Tech. As a shooting guard, he scored 18 points in Tift County's state championship game victory in March.
Tift County football coach Ashley Anders sees Bateman's basketball skills carrying over to the football field — his body position and jumping ability benefit him on fade routes and his ability to weave through defenses on the court aids him in yards after the catch. His 40-yard dash time is 4.5 seconds.
"He can run so fast, man," Anders said. "A football field is a lot bigger than a basketball floor, so I think he's able to use his speed to have a little bit better advantage."
Bateman's first love is football, so when Gophers secondary coach Mo Linquist developed a relationship with him last summer, Bateman proved himself at a camp and then jumped at the scholarship offer to come to Minnesota. Fleck and Simon's development of Davis at Western Michigan was a catalyst in his decision.
"It's a nice place," Bateman said. "To be around elite people with this coaching staff, I've seen them do big things, and I know we can do big things. I want to be a part of something special at Minnesota."
As Bateman has impressed during his senior season, recruiting services have bumped up their rating of him to a high three-star. "I think he's a fringe four-star, to be honest, just based on what I've seen on film," said Gophers analyst Kyle Goblirsch at 247sports.com. "There is still a chance that he could be bumped (up) again."
Other programs have attempted to recruit him this season. Mississippi, Virginia Tech and Central Florida have offered scholarships; Georgia and Florida State have reached out as well.
"I'm locked in with Minnesota all the way," Bateman said Wednesday. He plays to sign a letter of intent during the early signing period in December and enroll next summer, after he plays his senior basketball season and graduates from high school.
In January, Bateman will represent USA Football in international games at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. Previous alums of these games include NFL stars Jameis Winston and Todd Gurley.
"It's pretty awesome because although I'm not a U.S. Army All-American or Under Armour All-American, the same guys that play in those games play in the USA game," Bateman said. "So it's just as big as one of those games to me."