As recently as 2012, the Minnesota football roster didn't feature a single player from the state of Georgia. In 2013, the head coach at the time, Jerry Kill, brought in three freshmen from 'The Peach State,' including Jalen Myrick, who would go on to the NFL.
Today, the Gophers football roster has 12 players from Georgia, the most of any state other than Minnesota (41). Despite over 1,100 miles separating the Twin Cities and Atlanta, Head Coach P.J. Fleck says the two locations are closer than people realize.
"There's direct access from Minneapolis to Atlanta," Fleck said. "Nonstop flights, a lot of them per day. I mean a lot. You can be here in 2 1/2 hours on a flight and be closer than most of the cities in Georgia for driving."
Not only have the Gophers succeeded in recruiting prospects from Georgia, they've excelled in bringing in key contributors as well. The most accomplished Georgian on the roster is running back Rodney Smith. The redshirt senior eclipsed the 3,000 yard rushing mark for his career in the maroon and gold in the 2019 season opener against South Dakota State.
Smith has witnessed firsthand the influx of Georgia natives onto the roster. During his first season with the team in 2014, during which he was redshirted, Smith was one of two more Georgia natives the Gophers added to the roster from the year prior, along with fellow Mundy's Mill High School standout Jonathan Celestin.
"When I was coming out of high school, I didn't even know where Minnesota was," Smith said. "A lot of guys going to other schools were like, 'Minnesota? Why are you going to Minnesota?' But now we see a lot of guys taking visits up here and coming up here."
On offense, Minnesota has another star player from Georgia beginning to capture headlines. Wide receiver Rashod Bateman has caught a team-leading 12 receptions for 237 yards and two touchdowns in the first two games of his sophomore season. The four-star recruit from Tifton feels he made the right decision choosing Minnesota over multiple offers from SEC schools, including the University of Georgia.
"When you're down South, and you hear about Minnesota, you just think about cold," Bateman told the media. "But when you get up here and visit you realize it's really a nice place to be and a fun place to be. Once you get to know this coaching staff and get around the facility, it's kind of hard to say no."
According to Fleck, the program has excelled at recruiting in Georgia because recruits from the state have performed well at Minnesota.
"Once you have a little bit of success with some guys down there, that spreads like wildfire," Fleck said. "And that's what we've done. It's nice to have Rashod Bateman have a lot of success from Tift County and have people be able to see him play and see a Georgia boy have success."
Another key player from Georgia is redshirt senior running back Shannon Brooks, who is currently recovering from a knee injury but has partnered with Smith throughout their careers to form a dynamic backfield duo. Smith credits Brooks as helping him stick with the program through all its changes over the past six years.
"He knows me, I know him, and we share a deep bond," Smith said of Brooks. "Everything we do is truly for one another, and I appreciate him."
Georgia natives haven't just made an impact on offense. Defensive back Chris Williamson of Atlanta had a pick six against South Dakota State and freshman Michael Lantz of Fayetteville hit the game-winning field goal against Fresno State. In terms of scoring, Georgia natives have accounted for 34 of Minnesota's 66 points this season.
While this weekend's opponent may come from a familiar state, they present an unfamiliar matchup for the Gophers. On Saturday, Minnesota will host Georgia Southern in the first-ever meeting between the schools.