From now until preseason camp starts in August, Land-Grant Holy Land will be writing articles around a different theme every week. This week is all about the most important questions yet unanswered for the season. You can catch up on all of the Theme Week content here and all of our ”Burning Questions” articles here.
Julian Fleming was the crown jewel of Ohio State’s 2020 recruiting class, highlighting a group that included Paris Johnson Jr., Jaxon Smith-Njigba, and C.J. Stroud. He was the No. 1 wide receiver and No. 3 overall player in that historic class, in addition to being the first (of many) ‘big fish’ recruited and reeled in by Brian Hartline. Not only that, but when Fleming pledged his allegiance to OSU, he (temporarily) became the Buckeyes’ third highest-rated commit of all-freaking-time. His commitment was a BIG DEAL.
Unfortunately for both player and program, Fleming’s Ohio State career has not gone according to plan. Seemingly banged up since the minute he stepped on campus in Columbus, the now-veteran has never played 12 games in a single season. He has battled shoulder, lower body, and core injuries, resulting in 26 appearances over the course of his three-year collegiate career. And he missed yet another OSU spring game in April, raising doubts about his overall health heading into the upcoming 2023 season.
But when available, Fleming has flashed high-end talent and potential. Which is why yours truly bought up serious real estate on Fleming Island and has refused to sell... Even though my money people have been begging me to cut my losses. The problem is, I have seen and remember too much.
I remember that it was Fleming, not JSN, who started the 2020 Big Ten championship game as a true freshman – and led the Buckeyes in receiving – in place of Chris Olave. I’ve seen the leaping catches and sideline catches that should have been, as well as Fleming’s ability to get open, run after the catch, and block for peers downfield. Watch the 2022 Rose Bowl (shoutout Brodie) for examples of all. The dude can play! But can he stay healthy?
“Can Fleming stay healthy?” is sort of the first Burning Question here, if you’ll allow me to transition into LGHL’s weekly theme. And to be completely honest, I have no idea. Fleming has yet to do so consistently, but I am not one of those people who believes that availability is necessarily an ‘ability’.
I know how the saying goes, but all it takes is one look at Fleming to realize that he takes care of his body. Shoulder injuries are rarely a result of negligence. Lower body injuries are a dime-a-dozen. And core ones, well, they’re a bit for fluky, but it’s not like Fleming is running around out of shape. Sh*t happens, and some athletes are more cursed than others.
Now, as for the (other) burning question of is this Julian Fleming’s year? I doubt it, at least in terms of a ‘big’ statistical output. But my own personal doubt has little to do with Fleming’s talent and/or health. If healthy, he will likely be given plenty of opportunities. And when previously given opportunities, he has generally produced.
However, Ohio State no longer boasts the likes of Justin Fields and/or C.J. Stroud at quarterback. Kyle McCord or Devin Brown will be the new man behind center, and both are unproven (especially Brown). This is not to say that one or the other can’t take the QB job and run with it, but Fields and Stroud were two of the most accomplished and productive passers in Big Ten history. Even they occasionally struggled to spread the wealth to three, four, or five targets.
The 2021 season, when Olave finished third amongst Buckeye wideouts with 936 yards, was an anomaly. Because OSU’s third-leading WR has typically finished with around 600 or 700 yards under Ryan Day, which is just slightly more than Fleming’s 2022 total of 533. And guess what? Fleming is still behind the same group of (2022) pass catchers, including tight end Cade Stover. Not to mention the fact that he will face stiff competition from young pups such as Carnell Tate, Jayden Ballard, and possibly even Brandon Inniss.
There are a lot of mouths to feed in Columbus, and only one, largely unproven QB – regardless of who wins the job – to distribute meals AKA footballs. So I just do not see the third or fourth option on this Ohio State team experiencing a true breakout in terms of receptions or yardage. Touchdowns could be a different story, though I will not be placing a wager on anyone other than Marvin Harrison Jr. to lead the Buckeyes in TD receptions.
That being said... all of it... I would be surprised if Fleming is not at least productive in his role in 2023. Call me crazy, but I am not yet willing to give up on this guy. And I am not the only one who clearly believes in his talent (I assume this is a reference to Fleming).
Duh but numbers don’t matter. We have 3 1st rounders next year…— Brian Hartline (@brianhartline) February 2, 2023
While 1,000 yards and 10 TD is not likely in 2023, Fleming does have a decent stretch of games during which he balled out. As a matter of fact, it took place just last year. After missing the Notre Dame and Arkansas State games due to yet another injury, he put together an impressive five-game run where he totaled 17 receptions for 327 yards and 6 TD.
Fleming’s production fell off a cliff after the Iowa game, but it is entirely possible that his body was worn down from playing so much. That is not a sarcastic dig, just pointing out that the 2022 season was almost like a traditional freshman season for the (then) third-year wideout. He may have hit the ‘freshman wall’ as an academic junior.
I fully expect Fleming to contribute in 2023, and he might even be the source of many highlights. However, I am not sure that his contributions and/or highlights (will) equate to a big-time statistical breakout. Because Ohio State has a full John Wick-esque array of weapons, with a new QB figuring out how to properly use them.
In a nutshell, my answer to these burning questions is “not likely”. But I will be rooting hard for Fleming and hoping that Buckeye fans get to see more than a flash of his star potential.