Ever since C.J. Saunders caught six passes for 102 yards and a touchdown in Ohio State’s 54-21 win over UNLV last September, there have been calls from Ohio State fans for Saunders to see more playing time in the Buckeyes’ wide receiver rotation.
Most of Saunders’ playing time for the rest of last season still came only in lopsided games, as the Buckeyes had six wide receivers on the depth chart ahead of him, but his teammates have indicated that they believe he belongs on the field more this season.
A former walk-on, Saunders still appears to face an uphill battle to becoming a regular in Ohio State’s wide receiver rotation, as the Buckeyes return every one of their top six receivers – Parris Campbell, Terry McLaurin, Austin Mack, K.J. Hill, Johnnie Dixon and Binjimen Victor – from last season.
Campbell, however, is adamant that Saunders has earned his share of playing time, too.
"He should be in the rotation this year," Campbell said of Saunders at last week’s Big Ten Media Days. "If he’s not in the rotation, something’s wrong. He should definitely get in the rotation, for sure."
Going into his third season as a Buckeye, Saunders – who is considered by Ohio State to be a senior, but still has two remaining seasons of eligibility – was placed on scholarship this spring, suggesting that he could be in line for a more significant role this season. And Campbell says he has seen Saunders earn that scholarship through the way he works.
"He deserves that scholarship, and honestly, that’s why they gave it to him," Campbell said. "His work ethic, he goes the extra yard. He’s doing things that top-touted receivers aren’t doing, and that’s what makes him great."
Saunders didn’t get any scholarship offers from major programs coming out of Dublin Coffman High School – where he was a three-sport standout in football, baseball and basketball – but Campbell says he believes Saunders would be one of the best receivers at just about any school other than Ohio State.
"Honestly, if C.J. was anywhere else, he would be a starting wideout, hands down," Campbell said.
Their teammates seemingly agree with that assessment. After I tweeted Campbell’s endorsement of Saunders during his interview session at Big Ten Media Days last week, several other Ohio State players retweeted it – including starting defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones, starting safety Jordan Fuller and fellow wide receiver Johnnie Dixon – with Dixon adding his own endorsement of Saunders’ ability.
Factual https://t.co/FaqfSfdix4— Johnnie L. Dixon III (@YoungKing_JD5) July 25, 2018
Although Saunders began his Ohio State career as a cornerback before moving to wide receiver during the 2017 spring, Campbell described Saunders as a "pure wideout."
"He’s a shifty guy, runs great routes, has great hands," Campbell said. "He started out playing DB, and then they moved him to wideout two springs ago, and I’ve seen him run one route, and I was like, ‘OK, he can play receiver.’"
“Honestly, if C.J. was anywhere else, he would be a starting wideout, hands down.”– Parris Campbell on C.J. Saunders
Aside from the talent in front of him on the depth chart, the other reason why Saunders hasn’t seen more playing time is because of his lack of size. Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer considers it important for his wide receivers to be effective blockers, and as of last season, Meyer felt that Saunders was still a liability in that area.
"Wish we could do something to get him a little stronger and more strength, because he's a really good player, just not very big," Meyer said last season after the UNLV game. "(Director of sports performance Mickey Marotti) is working hard at that."
That said, Saunders has bulked up some since last season – the 5-foot-10 foot wide receiver is currently listed at 185 pounds, up from 176 last season – and recently demonstrated his additional muscle in an Instagram photo taken from Ohio State’s annual picture day.
One other factor that could potentially lead to more playing time for Saunders is that the Buckeyes now have a new coach setting the wide receiver rotation. Newly promoted interim wide receiver coach Brian Hartline, along with Meyer, will now be making the decisions about how to divide up playing time at wide receiver, and that could open up the door to more playing time for Saunders – though the same is true for every other wide receiver on the roster – if he performs well in preseason camp.
The Buckeyes’ other wide receivers have even jokingly compared Saunders to Hartline, though Hartline was recruited as a scholarship player for his own career at Ohio State.
"We used to call him Hartline’s prodigy, just because he’s a white kid," Campbell said. "But he’s actually a really, really great receiver."
If Saunders doesn’t see the field regularly this season, it will likely have more to do with the talent he’s competing with for playing time – which includes not only the top six from last year, but also Demario McCall and Jaylen Harris – than anything else. But with his teammates believing he belongs on the field as much as anyone else, the Buckeyes might have to make room for him in their rotation this year.