Two spring practices into his college football career, frustration began to set in for Julian Fleming.
Having long been out in front of his contemporaries as the nation’s top-rated wide receiver in the class of 2020, Fleming found himself a bit behind many of the wideouts at Ohio State – even some fellow freshmen – when it came to the fundamentals of the position.
The Delaware Wing-T offense run at Southern Columbia High School in Fleming’s native Catawissa, Pennsylvania, didn’t exactly prepare him for the demands of Ryan Day’s high-flying pass attack in Columbus, and despite the expectations to become an immediate impact performer, the country’s No. 3 overall prospect suddenly had to play catch-up.
“It was a little bit of a rude awakening, but at the same time I kind of knew it was coming,” Fleming said Wednesday. “Just because everybody told me college was not high school, and obviously it’s not.”
A difficult transition to the next level was not all Fleming had to overcome though. COVID-19 canceled the Buckeyes’ spring and fall camps right after the aforementioned pair of practices, and a shoulder injury that had already been hampering Fleming for years only got worse during his first year with the Buckeyes. The 6-foot-2 wideout was stuck trying to make plays wearing a brace that restricted him from raising his left arm above his shoulder.
After undergoing a procedure to fix his shoulder over the offseason though, Fleming said he’s healthy, able to refine his technical prowess and ready to leave his freshman frustrations in the past.
Especially the brace.
“I don’t even really want to talk about that shoulder brace,” he said with a smile.
After being fully cleared to return to gridiron action following his offseason procedure, Fleming said he walked into the training room at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center to retrieve the brace out of sheer habit. When the trainers told him he no longer needed it, Fleming felt a sense of relief.
“Now just being able to have full range of motion all the way above my head, extending out all the way and not having to keep me stuck inside, it’s a wonderful feeling and it hasn’t been like this in a while,” Fleming said. “So I’m just excited.”
The shoulder injury had actually been plaguing Fleming since eighth grade, and Ohio State wide receivers coach Brian Hartline revealed this past spring that the second-year Buckeye had been operating at just 75 percent of his total capacity for a couple years because of it.
No longer restricted though, Hartline and other Buckeye coaches have been quite impressed with what they’ve seen out of a healthy Fleming during the preseason.
“It’s been awesome for him. I’m happy for him, he just runs around like a freight train and has just been doing just a great job,” Hartline said. “I think you’d be interested to hear what coach Parker Fleming thinks of him on special teams and what I think of him. He’s making an impact across the board. Him being able to clean that shoulder up and play – basically – healthy for the first time in the last three years, you can tell he’s just gaining momentum, which has been awesome.”
But even for the most highly-rated wide receiver recruit in program history, just being healthy does not guarantee Fleming much considering the wealth of talent in Hartline’s position room. At the outside spots alone, the Buckeyes have a pair of preseason AP All-Americans in senior Chris Olave and junior Garrett Wilson, while Marvin Harrison Jr. has made a big impression in his first offseason at Ohio State.
Fleming still has work to do in order to hone the specific wide receiver skills he struggled to get down last year, even if he’s made plenty of strides in the process since then.
“I feel like I came in as just like a raw athlete,” Fleming said. “At this point I feel like I'm transitioning into the wide receiver and not just the athlete whose God-given talents have put him above people.”
Barring injury or other unforeseen circumstances, Fleming will not hold a starting job at wide receiver for the Buckeyes this season, and in the eyes of many spectators who marveled at his recruiting status, that puts him behind schedule. However, through conversations with his family and coaches, Fleming has learned to let go of the pressures placed on him by the outside world.
“Right now, I’m 10 times better than what I was in high school. And all those outside people that said this, this and this about recruiting, it is an honor in high school, but once you get to college, all your stars are gone,” Fleming said. “You’re starting from the beginning, you’re starting from the ground up.”
The 2021 season will be something of a new beginning for Fleming, although he’ll get to build on a year of experience in scarlet and gray – even if it was a shortened one. With expectations tempered and somewhat recalibrated, Fleming can focus on making the most of his opportunities, which is exactly what he’s most eager to do.
“I’m very motivated just to get out there and show what I’ve improved on,” Fleming said. “It’s gonna be different now with a fully operational shoulder. But I’m just excited to say the least, I don’t know if there’s any extra motivation, but I’ve just been trying to work my butt off any way I can.”