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Matchup of the Week: Vincent Gray gets early test against Rashod Bateman

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Gray will have a lot to prove in the inaugural week of the season

NCAA Football: Ohio State at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Rashod Bateman was one of the most explosive players in college football last season. He finished 14th in the country with 1,219 receiving yards, more than top-NFL draft picks Jerry Jeudy, Tee Higgins, Brandon Aiyuk, and Chase Claypool.

But the national notoriety that others received never really came for Bateman because he played in Minnesota for the Golden Gophers and was also playing alongside another star in Tyler Johnson.

Now, after opting-out and then back in, Bateman is set to have another outstanding season for the Gophers in 2020. The good news for him is quarterback Tanner Morgan is back and is ready to show that he can make the jump to the NFL by the end of the year. The last time a Minnesota quarterback was taken in the draft was Craig Curry in the 8th-round of the 1972 draft. Morgan hopes to end that drought.

The bad news for both Bateman and Morgan is that Johnson has moved on to the NFL and catches touchdowns for Tom Brady and the Buccaneers. This leaves a receiving corps behind Bateman that totaled only 575 yards a year ago in 2020.

Now, everyone’s defensive focus is going to be slowing Bateman, and Jim Harbaugh told reporters on Monday just that:

Rashod Bateman jumps out immediately. He’s so strong, has made so many contested catches. He averaged over 20 yards per catch in 2019. He’s terrific, a really alpha-type guy. A real challenge for us in the secondary.”

To be precise Bateman averaged 20.3 yards per reception last season and did it on 60 receptions. The only two players who average a higher yards per reception on more receptions than Bateman was projected top-five pick and LSU wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase and 2019 first-rounder CeeDee Lamb out of Oklahoma.

In their two biggest games of the year in 2019 (Penn State and Wisconsin), Bateman had a combined 13 receptions for 350 yards and 2 touchdowns. Here is what he did to help Minnesota stay undefeated in an upset win over Penn State which put the Golden Gophers on the map as a contender:

Unfortunately for the Wolverines, the cornerback room, which is usually in relatively-strong hands, is the weakest (or at least untested) on paper it has been in the Harbaugh era. Ambry Thomas vs. Rashod Bateman would be a much more favorable matchup for the Wolverines in 2020, but since Thomas decided to opt-out, Vincent Gray will get the astronomical task of moving from third on the depth chart to the top guy.

Safety Brad Hawkins all but confirmed that on a Zoom call on Tuesday: “That’s definitely Vincent Gray’s task. I know that he will go out there and compete and come out on top. I believe in him and I believe in all of our guys. He’s ready for the battle.”

Gray emerged as a consistent starter with a few hiccups last season but was mainly the go-to guy in nickel packages. PFF stats showed that Gray was a fairly lockdown defender against the third-string wide receivers last season as he posted the fifth-lowest completion percentage in the Big Ten since 2014:

The question will be if he can keep those numbers up when facing some of the top receivers in the Big Ten this season, and it will be no easy task. Bateman will be just the first of many talented wideouts the conference has to offer this year.

The Wolverines also have a bit of a history allowing big games to the best wideouts in the country, mostly on big plays. Penn State’s K.J. Hamler had 6 receptions for 108 yards and 2 scores against Michigan last season and Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy raddled off 204 yards on six receptions and a score in the Citrus Bowl in January.

Michigan will need to limit those big plays if they want to win on Saturday against a Minnesota team that people continue to underestimate. That all starts with Vincent Gray putting the clamps on Rashod Bateman and forcing Tanner Morgan to look elsewhere if he wants to beat the Michigan Wolverines defense.