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Bold prediction(s): Evan Pryor will finish second among OSU running backs in total yardage, and Julian Fleming will finish second in receptions

Pryor flashed do-it-all versatility during OSU’s spring game, suggesting he could play a role in this year’s offense. And for the third consecutive year, I am spending an increasingly lonely summer at my timeshare on Fleming Island.

Is Pryor Ohio State’s best kept secret?
Photo by Emilee Chinn/Getty Images

I am giving you two bold predictions, because I simply have too much boldness. Or maybe I have taken up residence in Hot Take Fairytale Land, where pundits such as Skip Bayless make a living. TBD, I guess. But really, I just happen to think that we will see a lot of different “stuff” from the Buckeyes this year. My apologies for not being overly eloquent, but it is difficult to explain.

I do not see an offense that suddenly averages 40 rushing attempts per game. And I certainly don’t expect a top-5 national defense in Jim Knowles’ first season. But I do envision change, and some of that will occur by default, due to the losses of Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson. So on offense, I think that equates to spreading the wealth, and not being so reliant on C.J. Stroud, TreVeyon Henderson, and one or two wide receivers. That is where Evan Pryor and Julian Fleming coming in.

You (or I) would encounter minimal opposition if we were to suggest that Henderson is arguably the top running back in the country. After a true freshman season which saw him rip off chunk play after chunk play, and total nearly 1,600 yards and 19 TD in 2021, the argument likely comes down to he and Bijan Robinson. But Henderson was not exactly Wolverine out on the field. He did play in all 13 games, but was banged up a number of times. He also had five games in which he was fed less than double-digit carries. His workload was likely by design, but I would expect it to be similar in 2022.

Miyan Williams was Ohio State’s primary backup last season, and I do not think that will change — nor should it. Williams is the hammer to Henderson’s nail, or the thunder to his lightning. But unlike 2021, when there was little trust in other running backs, I believe the coaching staff has a third ball carrier they want to get into the mix with regularity, and that is Pryor. He looked explosive in OSU’s spring game, and displayed legitimate receiving potential. He could be the Swiss Army back this program has been looking for since a guy like Curtis Samuel played dual roles.

Now, I am not suggesting that Pryor could line up (often) as a traditional wide receiver or H-back, but he himself said that he feels like he can do a lot of the stuff the team did with Jaxson Smith-Njigba out of the backfield. Yes, JSN – arguably the top returning wide receiver in college football. I think Pryor was alluding to specific sets and/or looks, but I love that he has that confidence in himself. And who am I to say that Pryor is not capable of lining up in the slot or as the primary receiving option in a two-RB look? After all, he did rack up 646 receiving yards as a high school junior.

The sixth-ranked RB in the 2021 class, Pryor has a chance to bridge the gap between Henderson and Williams, and possibly even give you a little bit of what both of those guys provide. He likely won’t wear down opponents in the manner that Williams can, but he is a superior pass catcher. And he might not match Henderson’s overall rushing ability, but he could be a hell of an understudy. That is why I think he is going to have a productive season.

I predict that Pryor will finish third in carries, but second in receptions (among RB). He will announce his presence on a few passing downs, and then begin to play in-tandem with Henderson or Williams. And by the end of the season, we will be talking about a jack-of-all-trades, as well as one of the best ground attacks in the country. Pryor should be a big part of it.

That brings us to Fleming. Pardon me for still having faith in the top-ranked wide receiver from the 2020 recruiting class! Side note: If you want proof that recruiting is a roll of the dice, check out the college stats for the top 10 or 20 WR from this class. One 1,000-yard season from the top-15 WRs in that class combined, and it belongs to JSN. There have been a few injuries, but those guys have combined to play nearly 30 college seasons.

I am not saying the class is or was weak, I am actually attempting to prove why my prediction is not completely out of left field. Not every player hits the ground running, and it certainly is not fair to call any of them busts after two years. Fleming finds himself in a loaded WR room, but I believe in his talent.

Fleming could be sneaky important in a room lacking a ton of experience
Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Fleming was the No. 3 overall player in his class, a consensus five-star recruit, and Ohio State’s highest rated WR recruit of all-time. And he still is. Garrett Wilson, Emeka Egbuka, Brandon Inniss... Fleming was ranked higher than all of Brian Hartline’s past, present, and future weapons. Unfortunately, his career thus far has been significantly impacted by injuries. He has appeared in 15 games over two seasons, but rarely seemed to be playing at 100 percent — if ever. Then wouldn’t you know, he missed OSU’s spring game with a minor injury. Coaches said there was not a high level of concern, but tell that to my realtor on Fleming Island.

I am not sure why I find myself so bullish on Fleming, maybe it is simply based on his past reputation. At the same time, it is easy to see why he was once so highly touted. Listed at 6-foot-2, 205, he almost has a little Deebo Samuel or A.J. Brown to him — big, thick, muscular frame(s) for the wide receiver position, and athleticism to boot. Fleming was a standout basketball player in high school, showing off a diverse skillset when combined with his experience on the gridiron. That athleticism may have waned in recent years, but we’re talking about a 21-year old kid, and it’s not as if he has torn an ACL or Achilles. If healthy, I think he can be that guy again.

On the field, we have seen glimpses of what could make Fleming a special player. He started the Big Ten Championship Game in 2020 (as a freshman), and hauled in four catches for 53 yards. Last season, he played a significant role in the Rose Bowl, and had a few other almost-highlight worthy moments earlier in the year. He can run, he can certainly jump, and I have not seen him drop a pass in his limited opportunities. He should have more of those opportunities with Olave and Wilson playing in the NFL.

Fleming is projected as the third or fourth WR on the depth chart, and as long as he ends up in the top three, he will see plenty of time on the field. The Buckeyes are not going to be running a ton of two-receiver sets, meaning that Fleming could line up anywhere. JSN will presumably spend the most time in the slot, but I would also like to see his classmate in that position. Fleming has the build to do damage underneath, and potentially make plays with the ball in his hands. If he gravitates to the outside, I also think he could be a threat as a screen and/or boundary guy. He might not be a homerun threat, but we have not seen enough to say that with any certainty.

This collection of Ohio State wide receivers is an embarrassment of riches, but we need to remember that most of these guys are short on experience. Marvin Harrison Jr. and Egbuka excited us down the stretch last season, but they also totaled 20 catches between them. Fleming had more than either one of them in 2021, albeit with fewer highlights. But the third-year player does have an experience edge, and he is more than willing to block downfield. With Jeremy Ruckert also moving on to the NFL, the Buckeyes might want another option out there, although I am not saying Fleming should move to tight end.

The caveat with Fleming is health. I am just choosing to believe that he will get and remain healthy, and by the end of the 2022 season, carve out a niche for himself. I do not expect him to be a big-play threat, but more of a consistent security blanket. He might finish fourth or fifth on the team in receiving TD, but I think this is a big year for Fleming fans. Don’t sleep on the former top recruit.