Take a stroll back to 2020, back to Ohio State’s football recruiting class that year. The class ranked fifth nationally, and there are some names on the list that we have come to know very well — most notably C.J. Stroud and Jaxon Smith-Njigba. But the jewel in the crown of that class was five-star wide receiver Julian Fleming. He was the Buckeyes’ top recruit. He ranked No. 3 overall nationally. He was the top receiver coming out of high school in 2020. What happened?
Heavily recruited by his home state team Penn State and by Alabama, Fleming, the Gatorade Player of the Year in Pennsylvania, committed fairly early – well before he began his senior year in high school – to the Buckeyes. The recruiting reports raved. Fleming could do it all and possessed all of the tools for stardom: size, strength, speed, hands. Unfortunately, he also brought with him to Columbus a shoulder injury that kept recurring.
This COVID-19 season almost didn’t take place at all for Big Ten players. Ohio State played only eight games: five in the regular season, the B1G Championship game, and two playoff contests. A true freshman, Fleming played in only four of those games, snagging seven passes for 74 yards. Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave got the bulk of the targets, and Fleming played behind Jameson Williams and fellow five-star freshman Smith-Njigba.
The season was weird. Lots of cancellations. Lots of players sitting out with positive tests. We watched Justin Fields, Olave and Wilson, as well as Trey Sermon. Fleming, despite his reputation and hype, seemingly got lost in the shuffle. And couldn’t really shake the injury.
Olave, very surprisingly, announces that he’s returning for a fourth season with the Buckeyes. There’s one starting slot taken. Wilson, too, is back, of course. Jameson Williams, seeing the writing on the wall (writing that is spelled “JSN”) transfers to Alabama. Fleming might hope to be fourth receiver, in the rotation for snaps. Two freshmen, however – Marvin Harrison Jr. and Emeka Egbuka – got off to roaring starts. And Julian Fleming was once again more or less forgotten.
Still plagued with a shoulder injury, still often wearing a brace, Fleming played in just eight of the Buckeyes’ 13 games last year. Among wideouts, he was fourth in receptions with 12 (JSN had 95, Wilson 70, and Olave 65). Fleming scored a receiving touchdown (his first) but had only 86 yards from his catches. The 7.2 per catch average was so far behind that of the other OSU wide receivers that it had me asking myself last year, “Is Fleming slow? Can’t he shake a defender and get clear? Isn’t he tough enough to break out of a tackle?”
In the Rose Bowl, with Olave and Wilson sitting out, Julian Fleming finally got his chance to start a game. And? His shoulder popped out. He popped it back in, kept playing, and earned the lasting respect of his teammates. Toughness? No question. He finished the bowl game with five receptions for 35 yards. Anyone who watched the game remembers not Fleming’s toughness in dealing with injury, but JSN’s record-setting night: 15 catches, 347 yards, three TDs. Fleming was still an afterthought.
This was to be the breakout year for Julian Fleming. Wilson and Olave were gone. One of the three starting positions was sure to be his. Injury again (this time unspecified) kept Fleming out of Ohio State’s 2022 spring game, but he came back strong and earned one of Mickey Marotti’s “Iron Buckeye” awards for performance in the weight room during summer workouts. Before the Notre Dame game, though, Fleming felt another “tweak” and missed that game – and the Arkansas State game.
If 2022 was to be his breakout year, he was off to a slow start. Harrison Jr. and Egbuka were already well ahead of him. JSN’s injury has given Fleming another shot as a starter. He returned to play against Toledo in the Buckeyes’ third game and caught three passes for 23 yards and two touchdowns. His sideline catch on one of the TDs was a thing of beauty.
Fleming has caught four passes in each of the Buckeyes’ last three games (versus Wisconsin, Rutgers, and Michigan State). He’s scored three more touchdowns, and his per catch average has climbed steadily with plays like his 51-yarder against Sparty. For the season, Fleming’s 15 receptions rank him just behind Egbuka (35) and Harrison Jr. (31) among wideouts. He’s scored five TDs, and his 14.8/reception average is quite an improvement, though it’s still behind Egbuka (18.7), Harrison Jr. (17.3), and Jayden Ballard (18.7).
Answering the questions
To return to the questions at the head of this story: has Fleming finally arrived. I’d say “yes,” or at least he’s finally getting there. No, he hasn’t yet lived up to his billing. The shoulder injury prevented that — and the competition in the wide receiver room. Now that he’s playing regularly, he’s a viable option for Stroud, one that can get open, make the catch, gain yards afterward. He’s starting to look like a star.
The second question, “Does his arrival matter?” is tougher. Here’s why. Smith-Njigba will be back in the starting lineup. With luck, soon; against Iowa, we hope. When he does, who among the current starters sits? My guess would be Fleming. Egbuka and Harrison Jr. have flashed greatness all year. They’ve earned their spots. And that would put Fleming on the sideline, next to Ballard (whom I really like) and Xavier Johnson.
It will be interesting to see what happens once JSN returns. Does Fleming rotate into action on meaningful snaps? Put up good numbers and continue his rise to stardom? Or does he simply become a reliable backup? Come into the game once the outcome is decided? Flank wide while the ball is run into the middle of the line to run the clock?
What happens with Fleming the rest of the year will, naturally enough, determine his future next year. Completing his third year, he’s eligible to declare for the NFL Draft after this season. But has he played enough? Does he have the stats? If he stays at Ohio State, can he join Egbuka and Harrison Jr. as starters by holding off Ballard and the four receivers in the 2022 class? Does he consider the transfer portal, take a chance on a year somewhere where he’ll not only start but also be the quarterback’s primary target?
Time will tell. I think, however, that Fleming wants to be a Buckeye and that he’s happy to take on the competition in Columbus. Healthy, at full strength, he’ll take his chances against anybody in the country. So, I’ll answer that second question with a “yes!” His arrival matters not only to Fleming himself but to the Buckeyes’ who have a lot to gain in putting his talent on the field.