Even though it’s been more than two years since C.J. Saunders last played in a football game, the former Ohio State wide receiver hasn’t closed the book on his playing career yet.
Saunders, who was a student coach for the Buckeyes last season after his appeal for a sixth year of eligibility was denied by the NCAA, will be among the participants in Ohio State’s March 30 pro day, where he’ll take his shot at impressing NFL scouts in hopes of landing an opportunity to play in the league.
Given that he didn’t see a ton of playing time at Ohio State and that he hasn’t played in a game since 2018 after missing the entire 2019 season with a knee injury, Saunders knows it’s uncertain whether he’ll even get invited to an NFL training camp. But he doesn’t want to hang up his cleats without taking his best shot at continuing to play the sport he loves.
“I think I do have stuff left in the tank, and I didn’t really get to fully show it at Ohio State on Saturdays whether it be unhealthy or just a lot of really good players playing alongside me,” Saunders told Eleven Warriors last week. “And at the end of the day, whether I play for a long time or here in a couple months nobody calls and it’s the end of my playing days, that I can look back and say ‘I gave it everything I had’ and I put all, everything I could, into this opportunity.
“I didn’t want to leave anything up to regret, so I’m just trying to exhaust all options. And if it’s in my future, then so be it, and if not, then we’ll find something else and keep moving. But I just didn’t want to live with any regret down the road.”
A Central Ohio native who began his Ohio State career as a walk-on, Saunders earned some playing time at wide receiver for the Buckeyes in 2017 and 2018, catching 27 passes for 294 yards and a touchdown between those two seasons while also contributing as a punt and kickoff returner. He received a scholarship before the 2018 season and was selected as a captain in 2019, when he was regarded as one of the team’s top leaders even though he was sidelined.
Saunders had fully recovered from his injury and spent most of last offseason training with the Buckeyes until the NCAA informed him that he would not be granted an additional year of eligibility. While that was a tough pill to swallow for Saunders, as it meant he would never play in the scarlet and gray again, he didn’t spend much time dwelling on it, as Ryan Day offered him an opportunity to remain with the team and join the coaching staff for the season.
Although he would have rather been on the field than the sidelines, Saunders – who worked alongside Brian Hartline in the wide receivers room – enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about football from a different perspective while coaching those who he previously called teammates.
“I was playing with Chris Olave for two years, and we shared the field together. So being able to kind of pick his game apart from a different eye and him trusting my opinion, and that’s just one example,” Saunders said. “Garrett Wilson is another guy who, same situation, it’s a cool experience to be able to do that where I can call him my brother and obviously my teammate and would do anything for him, and then they know that if I’m giving them a critique or if I’m giving them a tip on the game, that I’m doing it because I think it’s what’s gonna help them and go from there.
“I just think those guys really respected my word, and I was super thankful for that. They realized that I would have something to give them to help these guys get better … and we just kind of created this relationship where I was solely there to help them get better. Which was kind of cool where usually you’re a teammate, yeah, you always want to get better but you’re also competing. You’re competing for playing time, for catches, this, that and the third. But now, it was like, ‘OK, I’m putting all my focus into you guys,’ and they accepted that and they understood that and they responded well.”
As he now shifts his focus back to playing football for the time being, Saunders believes that experience gives him a mental edge over other players.
“Being with our staff this year really allowed me to see kind of a full progression of how offense works, how special teams work,” Saunders said. “I think I gained a huge mental advantage in just IQ and knowledge of the game that even though I did consider myself a smart player, hearing it in those meetings and being around it all day really opened my mindset to a lot of things.”
In preparation for next month’s pro day, Saunders has been training at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center since Ohio State’s season ended. He did what he could to keep himself in football shape even though he wasn’t playing this past season, and he’s now training for pro day alongside a couple of his former teammates with Ohio State assistant strength and conditioning coach Quinn Barham.
Because he hasn’t played in two years and doesn’t have a lot of film to send NFL teams, he’ll need to stand out at pro day to improve his chances of making it to the league. The good news for Saunders is there will be no shortage of talent evaluators watching his pro day workout, specifically the part where he’ll be catching passes from projected first-round quarterback Justin Fields.
“I’ve got nothing to lose,” Saunders said. “Just kind of showcase what I got physically, and when we’re throwing routes and working, that’s what I love to do, so get out there with Justin again and some of the guys and be able to just compete and challenge each other and have a lot of fun in the process. So my biggest goal is just to be healthy and leave it all on the field that day.”
If the next few months go the way he hopes they will, Saunders will be spending this summer trying to make an NFL roster. If that doesn’t happen, chances are good he’ll be back on the sideline coaching somewhere.
Saunders has actually continued to coach this winter at his alma mater Dublin Coffman High School, where he’s been an assistant coach for the boys’ basketball team since Ohio State’s season ended. And he is planning to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was the longtime baseball coach at Dublin Coffman, by pursuing a career in coaching himself.
“I’ve always had part of me that has liked being in a coaching role and kind of just how you can affect a team and affect a person, and I’ve had great coaches do that to me that have kind of opened my eyes, so I’m definitely interested in the coaching world,” Saunders said.
Whether it be as a player or as a coach or if his career path goes elsewhere, Saunders believes the lessons he learned throughout his time at Ohio State will lead him to success in the next chapter of his life.
“Through Coach Mick in the weight room, through the trainers and how you go about taking care of your body, the coaches – the program is so elite, and it gets your mind to think in that different way,” Saunders said. “I’ve been able to meet a lot of people, and you start to see like, ‘OK, the way that we worked at Ohio State, something was different about that.’ And what I’m gonna carry with me is the hard work that it takes, the effort, the mindset. There’s so many little things it takes to be great and really reach that peak summit of whatever industry you’re in. It doesn’t just have to be an athlete. Whether you’re in the business world, coaching, whatever it is. And you’re really just fighting every day to be the best day of yourself.
“That’s kind of the message at Ohio State that Coach Day really emphasizes, and that’s what I think I’m gonna carry with me. Just through the ups and downs, just keep getting better, keep working hard; you’re never too smart to learn something and to gain something from other people, so treat people with respect. I could go on and on about all the lessons I’ve learned, but I couldn’t be more thankful for how Ohio State has treated me, and I’m in debt to them forever for how they’ve groomed me to be who I am today.”