For the first time in a while, Julian Fleming actually has to look up to see everybody else.
As a freshman at Ohio State, he begins his career like everybody else: At the bottom of the depth chart. Ryan Day, last fall, chuckled as he told the story of whenever highly regarded first-year players get introduced in front of the team, the upperclassmen ask how many recruiting stars they had, and then the veterans yell, “We don’t care.”
Fleming surely got that treatment when he enrolled in January. As a recruit, almost everybody was below him.
Talent evaluators ranked him as the No. 3 overall prospect – behind Clemson-bound defensive lineman Bryan Bresee and future Alabama quarterback Bryce Young – and the top wide receiver in his class. Having arrived in Columbus a month and a half ago, his five-star status no longer matters, at least in terms of getting on the field.
“It's gone,” Fleming said a couple of weeks ago. “All the stars are gone, all the rankings are gone, everything like that. So you know, it's starting from scratch, you just got to build your way up and you got to earn everything.”
Fleming, since enrolling early in January, has taken it all in stride – though it’s not as if the veterans would give him a choice. He said he “wouldn't want it any other way” than to have everybody pushing him and yelling at him in the weight room like they’ve been doing since his first workout.
“Julian, he just, he puts his head down and works,” Jaxon Smith-Njigba said.
As his head stays down, everybody else has their eyes up, looking at him. It’s hard not to wonder what he can become in Columbus under the tutelage of Brian Hartline.
“I’m not picky. You know, any way I can contribute at this point is going to be the way I go.”– Julian Fleming on his role as a freshman
He’s part of a youth movement at wide receiver that includes six top-100 national recruits in the past two cycles. In 2019, the Buckeyes brought in Garrett Wilson (No. 20 overall, No. 2 wideout) and Jameson Williams (No. 82 overall, No. 13 wideout), both of whom will be sophomores this fall. In the 2020 cycle, Fleming was joined by Smith-Njigba (No. 28 overall, No. 5 wideout), Gee Scott Jr. (No. 65 overall, No. 10 wideout) and Mookie Cooper (No. 91 overall, No. 16 wideout).
The quartet comprises quite possibly the most talented group of wide receivers to ever enter the Ohio State program together, and Fleming stands at the front.
“I mean, obviously, within myself I have a lot of expectations,” Fleming said. “I'm sure they do as well, but you know at this point, it's just contributing any way I can on the field.”
The Pennsylvania native left his home state – eschewing Penn State’s pitch in the process – in favor of creating his own legacy in Columbus. In doing so, he became the fourth-highest rated prospect to ever pick Ohio State in the modern recruiting era, sitting behind Terrelle Pryor, Ted Ginn Jr. and Jack Sawyer.
Can he be the next Michael Thomas? Next Cris Carter? Joey Galloway? Michael Jenkins?
It’s unfair to put those names beside any 18-year old. But that’s what happens when somebody enters the program ranked higher than any other wide receiver in the past couple of decades.
“I just want to be successful anywhere I can be on the field at this point,” Fleming said.
As a freshman, Fleming likely won’t start. Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson will enter the spring as projected starters at Z and X receiver positions, respectively.
But at both Z and X, Hartline wants to have at least one backup to rotate heavily. Once spring begins in a week, it’ll be an open competition. Williams, Scott, Jaylen Harris, Ellijah Gardiner and Kamryn Babb will all find themselves in the mix for what in all likelihood will be just two regular rotation spots.
Fleming doesn’t quite have as much experience as some others in his room, but he doesn’t need to look beyond last season to see the precedent of a freshman earning a key role as an outside receiver. Wilson caught 30 passes for 432 yards and five touchdowns in 450 snaps in 2019.
“I mean Garrett had a great year last year and, you know, he's gonna have another great year this year, I'm sure of it,” Fleming said. “But you know, seeing him play and compete at such a high level definitely did I you know, gave me a little boost. I liked it, I liked it a lot and just seeing how quick he got in as a freshman. And that was one of those other things, Ohio State plays, they're deep, they're deep at wide receiver and they continue to get guys in the rotation, so I like that a lot.”
To get as many snaps – and targets – as Wilson had a year ago, Fleming already has an area both he and his position coach know he has to improve.
“I think from a route-running standpoint he’d probably tell you that he hasn’t had a lot of exposure to running routes and being exact and detailed on top-ends and how to do all that,” Hartline said in December.
Almost two months later, Fleming said exactly what Hartline predicted he would.
“I mean the challenge at this point is, like you said, it's just route running,” Fleming said. “It's just being able to get in and out of breaks and a lot of focuses we've had so far are just, you know, little things that could continue to improve and, you know, improve me as a player. So, you know, again, they're getting progressively better.”
Those technical aspects of his game will make the difference for Fleming, who already has top-line physical traits.
At 6-foot-2 and 199 pounds, he runs a 4.45-second 40-yard dash and has what Hartline described as “really great” ball skills. That ever-improving package could get him on the field quickly.
“I’m not picky,” Fleming said. “You know, any way I can contribute at this point is going to be the way I go.”