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Late bloomers: Ravens first-round picks Rashod Bateman and Odafe Oweh agree they’re just getting started

Rashod Bateman wasn’t a hyped recruit until late in his high school career in Georgia. He had to travel 1,300 miles north to find himself as an athlete and a man. Odafe Oweh didn’t play football at all until five years ago. He spent the last few months answering questions about his lack of polish despite his eye-popping time in the 40-yard dash.

The wide receiver from Minnesota and the outside linebacker from Penn State both feel they have much to prove, a trait they share with the Ravens, who drafted them in the first round Thursday night.

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“I can tell that we’ve both got similar backgrounds,” Bateman said Friday at his introductory news conference in Owings Mills. “I definitely think that’s why we’re both the way we are. We’re hungry, and we want more.”

“I feel like that’s the intrigue about me, and that’s the crazy part about me,” Oweh said. “I still have so much in the tank, so much untapped potential that, me, I don’t even know, and the people that drafted me don’t even know yet.”

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Penn State defensive end Jayson Oweh (28) looks at the scoreboard against Ohio State during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. Ohio State defeated Penn State 38-25. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)
Penn State defensive end Jayson Oweh (28) looks at the scoreboard against Ohio State during an NCAA college football game in State College, Pa., on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2020. Ohio State defeated Penn State 38-25. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger) (Barry Reeger/AP)

Bateman grew up in Tifton, Georgia, a city of 16,350 located 180 miles south of Atlanta. He was nurtured by a close family (on draft night, he wore a medallion bearing the likeness of his late uncle, Anthony) and community supporters, but he also did not feel he could be himself. Not fully.

As he later told the Minneapolis Star Tribune, he hid an interracial relationship because his girlfriend’s parents did not approve and adjusted his fashion to fit in with white friends.

He starred on the football field and basketball court for the Tifton County Blue Devils but bloomed late on the national recruiting stage. Minnesota was the first Power Five school to offer him a scholarship, and he gladly accepted at a camp the Golden Gophers’ coaching staff held in Georgia. Offers from powerhouse programs poured in after Bateman broke school records with 83 catches for 1,539 yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior, but he held firm.

Minnesota wide receivers coach Matt Simon recalled the easy grace of Bateman’s movements even at that age. “We knew it was a matter of when other schools were going to jump in on him, not if,” Simon said. “He’s a very loyal man. He wanted more for his life than just the game of football, and I think he knew our program was the right mix. He didn’t care who was offering him or what was going on around him. "

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Simon described an athlete who won’t be daunted by the Ravens’ history of failed draft picks at wide receiver. He and Bateman were walking off the practice field a few weeks before the 2019 season when Bateman, who’d caught 51 passes for 704 yards as a true freshman, said, “I just don’t feel like I’m getting that much better. I have such a long ways to go.”

Simon laughed.

“Rashod, I know you’re never satisfied, but you’re such a different player than you were last year,” he replied. “You have no idea how special you can be or will be.”

Over the next three months, Bateman established himself as the best receiver in the Big Ten.

Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman (0) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Minnesota, Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Minneapolis. Iowa won 35-7.
Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman (0) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Minnesota, Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Minneapolis. Iowa won 35-7. (AP Photo/Stacy Bengs)

Without being told, he took on extra weight-training sessions and extra pitch-and-catch sessions with Minnesota’s quarterbacks. He requested film of NFL receivers Odell Beckham Jr., Keenan Allen and Davante Adams. His study translated to games; draft evaluators praised his educated feet and knack for creating separation from the slot or on the outside.

“He’s one of those guys you love as a coach, because you get to teach it to him, you help him with it, but then he turns around and implements it on the field,” Simon said.

Tyler Johnson, who plays for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was the king of Minnesota’s wide receiver room when Bateman arrived. The newcomer accepted his complementary role with grace while also finding his voice as a prominent player on the team.

Beyond the confines of the football program, he found his footing as a man in Minnesota. After a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd last year, Bateman changed his jersey number from 13 to 0 to show zero tolerance for racism in America. He vowed never again to silence himself just to get along, as he had during his Georgia youth.

“After George Floyd, it kind of hit me why I play football,” he told the Big Ten Network. “I play football because no matter your color, your race, your religion or what you believe in, there’s a group of young men going out there and fighting for the same goal.”

With plans for the Big Ten season in chaos because of COVID-19, Bateman originally opted out of playing his third season. Then he visited practice.

“You could see on his face how much he missed the guys, how much he missed the huddle and having fun, making plays with the offense,” Simon said. “Shortly after that, he opted back in, which was kind of a microcosm of how much he loves football and how much he loves his teammates.”

Though he tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in 2020, Bateman made the most of his brief final run, catching 36 passes for 472 yards in five games.

When he and Simon spoke Wednesday night, Bateman listed two cities where he thought he might land. Baltimore was one of them. As usual, his planning translated to a desired result.

Oweh, by contrast, had no plans to strap on shoulder pads when Jim Saylor spotted him in the admissions office at Blair Academy in New Jersey. The rising junior was already a mid-major prospect in basketball, but when he unfolded his 6-foot-5, 235-pound frame to shake Saylor’s hand, the football coach suggested he might want to try a new sport.

Oweh and his parents laughed, but a few months later, he was out on the field for preseason workouts. Saylor’s jaw dropped when the powerfully built teenager lost by a nose in a sprint with teammate Justes Nance, who would earn a track scholarship at Georgia.

“You knew we just had to figure out a way to get this kid out there, running around,” Saylor recalled.

For all his physical gifts, Oweh did not know how to take a three-point stance. He wasn’t close to the best defensive lineman on Blair’s team. In his first game, an opponent caught him unaware on kickoff coverage and sent him to the hospital with bruised ribs. Saylor thought he might not come back for Monday practice.

“Most kids at 16 or 17 are not going to try something they might fail at,” he said. “A lot of us don’t want to try something new, because we’re worried about not being as good at it, but bless his heart for being a risk taker.”

Oweh was reserved on first meeting, but Saylor learned he had a ready sense of humor and came from one of the closest families — his parents grew up in Nigeria and raised four children in Howell, New Jersey — the coach had ever encountered.

By December, he had his first scholarship offer. By the next spring, major programs were lining up.

That’s why Saylor grew tired of the nitpicking Oweh endured during his pre-draft evaluations — the inescapable line that he produced no sacks in his one season as a starter at Penn State. When teams called him for a reference, he told them Oweh will never stop until he translates his raw talent to NFL excellence.

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“He’s so competitive that he’s going to walk into the Ravens’ first practice pushing to be the best that they have,” Saylor said. “We talked last week, and he was just drained mentally; he felt like a lot of the draft process was not to find out what’s good about you but to find the negative. But what he said to me was, ‘It’s a motivator.’ He’s got a little chip on his shoulder.”

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Penn State defensive line coach John Scott Jr. was delighted to see his former player land with the Ravens. He only worked with Oweh for seven months but saw him improve by leaps and bounds in that time.

“What you’ve got to think about is last year was his first year as a starter,” he said. “And look at the dominant year he had. If you really watch the tape, you see the way he dominated tight ends and tackles in the run game and how he ran stuff down.”

Scott coached two seasons with the New York Jets and said Oweh would have started over any edge defender on that roster. Like everyone else, he couldn’t believe his eyes when he first watched this 6-foot-5, 251-pound man explode off the line and cover open ground.

“He’ll be a guy who’s going to ask a lot of questions because he’s always trying to tweak and refine his game,” Scott said. “I’m really, really excited to see him blossom in that culture in Baltimore, with those great teammates. He’s going to fit right in with that.”

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